Former Baltimore solicitor offers advice on leadership

Those of us who have been asked to run public agencies admittedly don't have a challenge nearly as daunting as mayors and presidents suddenly tasked with populating the entire leadership of an administration under often difficult circumstances. But there are lessons learned by agency heads worth sharing with elected officials confronting their larger and more complex task. As someone who ran an important Baltimore City agency for nearly 10 years — and who is enormously proud of the team assembled and largely still in place — allow me to share a few of those lessons learned as our new mayor takes the helm.

1.First, define and establish the "culture" you want, and guide your team as you choose its members and oversee their work. That culture should include collaboration and teamwork, rewarding as best you can competence and hard work — and accepting mistakes so long as they do not involve dishonesty or lack of integrity and so long as those who make them learn from them. It is critical that you and the other leaders of the team consistently exhibit and reflect those core elements of the team culture. If there are other essential elements as your agency or government evolves, broadcast and memorialize them.


2.Ensure that team members are rewarded with compensation, other benefits and promotion consistent with your important team culture elements.

3.Because compensation and promotions can be sparse in government agencies struggling with tight budgets, be creative in establishing other ways to thank and reward team members who deserve it.


4.While you expect hard work, never forget that family comes first and that team members who take the vacations they earn and who have fun at — and after — work are far more likely to perform well in their jobs.

5.While it's OK if your co-workers become your best friends, don't hire your best friends (or family members). And make sure that each and every one of your team members knows that they are expected to tell you as their leader not what they think you want to hear but what they think you need to hear.

6.Most issues you will deal with are complicated, and there is rarely only one right answer. The best answers generally emerge from a robust discussion in which different views and facts are shared. Differing views need to be shared and should not be treated as unwelcome dissents.

7.Do not micromanage; it is demoralizing and kills initiative and creativity. You hired them — let them do their jobs.

8.When you have to terminate a team member (especially one whom you hired or who reports directly to you) don't send a surrogate to do the hard work of terminating.

9.When you as the team leader make a mistake (as you will), acknowledge it to your senior team members and learn from it — as you would expect of all others who work for you. Lead by example.

10.While competence is important in hiring and beyond, it is not the only skill that matters.

11.Promote a service mentality — service of the citizens with pride and a smile both inside and out.


George Nilson was Baltimore city solicitor from 2007 to 2016; he was previously Maryland deputy attorney general from 1976 to 1983. His email is