10 Traits of a Successful Public Administrator

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Executives shaking hands

Author Victor Lipman made famous the idea that good employees quit managers and leaders, not organizations. The idea is that a single bad manager can have a catastrophic impact on employee morale, turnover, and the overall effectiveness of the organization. Fortunately, a good manager can have the opposite effect.

In the public sphere, administrators can play an even more significant role than in corporations. The allure of high salaries and better benefits constantly draws great employees away from the public service sector, and it is often the strength of an organization’s leadership that prevents a full-fledged hemorrhaging of employees.

Excellent public administrators share these 10 common characteristics:

1. Commitment to the Mission

Excitement trickles down from leadership to the employees on the ground. When the administrator is enthused about the organization or agency’s mission, the employees will mirror those feelings. In times of crisis, great administrators remind their staff of the purpose of their mission and the role their organization plays in the larger society.

2. Strategic Vision

A public administrator must always remain focused on the strategic vision and the long-term mission of the agency or organization. Staff members can become narrowly obsessed with the day-to-day operations of the agency but count on their leaders to understand the five, 10 and 20-year plans. It is important to remember that the agency or organization was often around long before the public administrator arrived, and will remain in operation long after the administrator leaves.

3. Conceptual Skill

Business magnate Chester I. Barnard argued the importance of conceptual skill when he wrote: “…the essential aspect of the [executive] process is the sensing of the organization as a whole and of the total situation relevant to it.” What he means is that leaders must always be able to see how any one action or decision affects every part of the company or organization. Staff members may only see as far as their department or shift; leaders must always see beyond those limits.

4. Attention to Detail

As important as it is for leaders to see the big picture and think strategically, it is equally important for them to pay attention to the details. This does not mean that leaders have to be involved in every minor decision, or undermine the decisions of subordinates; rather, leaders must remain aware of the activities of their staff and the status of projects, allowing autonomy whenever possible.

5. Delegation

There is a fine line between delegating tasks to staff and shirking from responsibilities, knowing subordinates will take up the slack. Great public administrators navigate this distinction by assigning not just tasks, but clearly defined spheres of influence where staff members have the authority to make decisions. Delegating tasks and responsibilities in this manner empowers staff members to grow in their positions, preparing them for future leadership positions.

6. Grow Talent

Internal promotions save companies and organizations thousands of dollars over adding outside hires. A public administrator must be able to take existing talent within the organization, nurture it, and place staff members in positions where they can be successful. Public administrators must be careful not to stifle staff growth by becoming overbearing or forcing staff members into positions for which they are ill-suited.

7. Hiring Savvy

Many people enter public service because they have a deep desire to make their community a better place; however, desire and skill do not necessarily go hand in hand. Public administrators can set their agency or organization up for success from the very beginning by hiring the right people for the right jobs at the right time. Great administrators take measured risks, knowing that one bad hire can have negative ripple effects through the rest of the organization.

8. Balance Emotions

Almost every person experiences extreme emotions at one time or another, and those emotions can be harnessed for good or ill by leaders. Great leaders funnel emotions, like rage, anger, and happiness, into positive action that drives change. Poor leaders use emotions as an excuse to lash out at staff members, creating uncomfortable working conditions.

9. Creativity

In most circumstances, public administrators work on shoestring budgets with short deadlines and difficult, seemingly impossible, objectives. Those drawn to public administration thrive on those unique challenges and use the restrictions as a way to showcase their creativity. Public administrators are able to come up with creative solutions to complex problems, usually by seeing an issue from a new perspective or by innovating a new approach to the solution.

10. Digital Communication Experience

Social media and digital communication platforms, such as email and video, are cornerstones of modern communications. While leaders in for-profit organizations are responsible to shareholders, they have much more freedom to determine when and where they will communicate. Public administrators are beholden to the people and may be held accountable for their actions at any time. Successful administrators exhibit excellent digital communication skills, especially communication via social media.
Public administrators choose their profession because of their love of service and their desire to make their communities a better place. These 10 traits can transform inexperienced administrators into tremendously successful ones.

Learn More

Our online Master of Public Administration at Ohio University can help you build the skills to address public needs in effective, efficient, and imaginative ways. We want you to take the big ideas in your head and put them into action by helping you develop as a project manager, communicator, policy analyst, and financial mind. When you have an expert understanding of public administration and the professional tools to back it up, you can lead a career of consequence for your constituents.


Forbes.com, “People Leave Managers, Not Companies”
sHRm.org, “Weighing Internal vs. External Hires”