Leading with humility in the public sector

Photo credit: Deirdre Flanagan

February 3, 2015

Last week, former CEO of Los Angeles County Bill Fujioka joined students at the Bedrosian Center’s Lunch with a Leader event to discuss his ideas about leadership and how they helped him rise to LA County’s top appointed position.

Long before he was CEO, Fujioka says, his father locked him out of the house and told him to go find a job. A few months later, he landed his first position with the County of Los Angeles at LA County General Hospital. It was here that he developed a passion for working in the public sector and learned the importance of building relationships with the people in his organization and the constituents he was serving.

“The county serves people who no one else will help… you have people [who say their] job is crazy and the workload is nuts but I would tell managers… If you really want to know why you’re here, go spend an hour in the waiting room,” Fujioka says. “What you see in a waiting room will tell you why you want to be in public service.  That’s the whole secret…  Go to a waiting room and then personalize it and see how you can touch someone’s life and change it.  That’s what it’s all about.”

‘Personalize it’ seems to have been Fujioka’s mantra for finding passion and motivation during his 40 plus years in public service. The passion and humility learned from his early days at County General aided him in further cultivating relationships and building the network that helped him balance budgets and delivery quality services once at LA County.

15761859074_0a19322f81_kLeadership, Fujioka explained, is about developing teamwork. To build successful teams, he emphasized that leaders should seek out everyone in an organization and learn what their abilities and roles are and what they add to the organization. If a leader understands the people and the processes in an organization, he or she can see how teams can be created that work together effectively. To do this right, he stressed that a leader must have humility and respect for everyone involved.

For students looking to enter careers in public service, he also advised that they shouldn’t discount the value of learning on-the-job and from their peers.

“There’s a lot to say for the academic side, there’s a lot to say for the practical side.  The best happens when the two marry and [when] they marry equally, the best happens.  Because what happens, and you talk about, you know, there’s implementation.  There’s a practical consequence of implementation.  There’s a theoretical consequence.  You’ve got to understand both.  And you learn both by having a good degree of humility and respect, and talking to people.  If you don’t have that, you’ll never be successful.”

While Fujioka’s track record may make his advice seem easy to follow, Professor Bostic reminded him that he also has a reputation for being tough. Bostic noted that in the public policy arena, where consensus building is difficult, maintaining humility and respect has to be balanced by a tough constitution and the resolution to stand up for your beliefs.

Mitch Englander, LA City Councilman and longtime friend and colleague of Fujioka, echoed his thoughts on the importance of relationships to being a successful leader: “The people who are successful in governance, not just government but governance and leading boards of directors, non-profits, whatever it might be, it’s all relationships [first] and it’s then based on knowledge and experience. “