Put the SERVE Back in Public Service – 5 Ways Government Leaders Can Rebuild Trust

JFKIs it my imagination or was there once a time when government service was considered a noble and worthy endeavor?

Elected representatives, appointed officials, and even hired employees viewed public service as a calling rather than a job, inspired by ideals such as self-sacrifice, civic duty, compassion, patriotism, and social justice. President John F. Kennedy’s call to “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country” epitomizes these lofty principles of public service.

I’m sure there are many individuals in government service who still hold to these ideals, but our government leaders as a whole seem to have lost sight of their role to SERVE the public interests. Instead, many of our governmental leaders seem to think and act like government exists to serve themselves rather than the public. As a result, Americans have developed a chronic sense of mistrust toward government. Just last week a new CNN poll reported that only 13% of respondents trust the government to do what is right almost always or most of the time, and 10% never trust the government.

So what can government leaders do to regain the trust of the citizenry? They can start by putting the SERVE back into public service.

Start listening – There seems to be an awful lot of talking going on in Washington but not much listening. Trusted leaders apply Stephen Covey’s fifth habit: Seek first to understand, then to be understood. Taking the time to listen to the needs, concerns, and feedback of your people, and incorporating their ideas where appropriate, builds trust in your leadership. Listening to others signals that you value them as people and believe their ideas have merit, whereas constantly talking makes you come across as an uncaring “know it all.”

Embody the ideals of public service – A leader’s actions are a reflection of his beliefs and values. Do the actions of our leaders in Washington show they deeply value the ideals of self-sacrifice, honor, duty, and compassion? Leaders build trust by acting with integrity. That means they hold honorable values, and more importantly, live them out. They walk the talk and not just talk the talk.

Realize it’s not about you – Our governmental leaders are supposed to be public servants. What is the attitude of a servant? It’s one that places the needs of others ahead of his own. Public service should be servant leadership in action. Servant leadership doesn’t mean a mamby-pamby, weak style of leadership that lets “the inmates run the asylum.” It means the leader charts the vision and direction of the team and then works to provide team members the resources, training, direction, and support it needs to be successful.

Veto your ego – Ego is the enemy of public service leadership. Leadership positions in the government often bring access to high levels of power, and nothing is more tempting to the ego than power. Leaders have to actively guard against letting their ego get out of control by surrounding themselves with truth-tellers, people who aren’t afraid to share the unvarnished truth. Too many leaders in Washington have insulated themselves with “yes men,” people who believe and think alike, and that allows group-think to reign and egos to run wild.

Engage in transparent leadership – It’s hard to trust leaders who don’t share information about themselves or the organization. Information is viewed as power, and too many leaders withhold information so they can retain power and control. Withholding information also sends the subtle message that a leader believes people can’t be trusted to know or use the information appropriately. People without information cannot act responsibly, whereas people with information are compelled to act responsibly. Transparent leadership doesn’t mean all information is shared at all times with all people. It means leaders and organizations share information in an honest, forthright manner as appropriate for the situation at hand.

Public service is a noble profession that deserves leaders of the highest caliber. Putting the SERVE back in public service is a way for government leaders to get back to basics, to the ideals of what public service once was and still deserves to be.

You’re invited to join me on August 20th, 2014 at 11:00 a.m. Pacific, for a free webinar – Four Leadership Behaviors That Build or Destroy Trust. With a special focus on governmental leaders, but applicable to leaders in any organization, this session will help you recognize the warning signs of low trust and learn a model and process for building high-trust relationships and organizations.

7 Comments on “Put the SERVE Back in Public Service – 5 Ways Government Leaders Can Rebuild Trust

  1. Sadly, far too many “public servants” have given government service a bad reputation, but thankfully there are still many true public servants working tirelessly and often invisibly for the betterment of our country and our world. Our daughter is a graduate of Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Policy. She and her classmates were trained for public service, and they are spread across the globe doing amazing things as leaders in public, nonprofit, and private sectors. Her husband is also an influential leader in the administration of their state’s government. So in many places, dedicated public service is alive and well.

    • Hi Elizabeth. Thanks for sharing your personal story of your daughter and son-in-law. We need those reminders, and more of those service-oriented people, in leadership roles in our public agencies.

      Thanks for taking the time to comment.


  2. Hi Randy

    Egos running wild as you say it and withholding information are a problem in every leadership role; be it in the private or in the public sector.

    A “good ego” meaning an understanding of our own personality, capabilities and limits does not need to send a silent message that the other people cannot be trusted. I seriously believe that people who trust themselves can give trust to others. On the other hand if I do not trust myself on what basis can I trust other people?

    Have a great week.

    • Hi Brigitte,

      I agree with you. A person with a healthy and balanced self image (ego, if you will) is usually able to have healthy, balanced, and trusting relationships with others.

      Take care,


  3. Great article. I agree with the insights and call to action. I also believe Kennedy’s call to action is more relevant today than ever. Because we have the freedom to prosper in America I believe we also have the responsibility to invest in America. Seeking handouts, looking for loop holes and always asking what can you do for me has begun to Bankrupt our Country and more importantly our character and integrity.
    It’s time American’s recognize that freedom comes from taking responsibility for providing for themselves and their families and from contributing to the common good.

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