How Indifference, Intolerance and Selfishness Make a Better Finance Officer (Part 1)

by Kent R. Austin, CPFO
City of University Park, Texas

A famous management handbook, first published in 1946 and reprinted continuously since then, opens with this memorable sentence: “You know more than you think you do.”

The same concept holds true for finance officers, and for public managers more generally: they know more than they think they do. Why? Because experience and learning are continuous processes, resulting in an enormous aggregation of memories, thoughts, feelings, likes, and dislikes in each one of us.

First and foremost, individuals are hired to be problem solvers, whether in government finance or any other line of work. Consequently, what an individual brings to a job is far more than simply specific technical knowledge in a given field. Individuals bring a lifetime of learning that originates from an untold number of sources. Consider:

• Every book, magazine, comic book, and newspaper you have ever read
• Every family member, friend, co-worker, or acquaintance you have ever met
• Every movie, TV show, and Internet video you have ever watched
• Every vacation, business trip, or daily commute you have ever taken
• Every meeting, public hearing, conference, and celebration you have ever attended
• Every class, seminar, training session, and workshop you have ever taken.

Each one of us has massive amounts of information that we carry around every day. Why limit on-the-job problem solving abilities to the technical skills required by the job description? Each one of us knows so much more than we think we do.

To help harness this huge knowledge base, think how it relates to three traits traditionally considered undesirable—indifference, intolerance, and selfishness. Turning these negative traits inside out leads to an understanding of how to renew one’s approach to life and work—a personal “reboot.”
Traditionally, “indifference” refers to a lack of caring or a deliberate decision to ignore or avoid certain ideas, places, or people. Around 1543, Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Roman Catholic order of priests known as the Jesuits, developed a radically different definition.

To him, the purpose of man’s existence should be to love and serve God. Everything else should not matter.

Thus, by centering one’s being on the single goal of loving and serving God, a Jesuit would seek to be indifferent to all other things—being rich or poor, fat or thin, intelligent or slow-witted, and so on. All else paled besides pursuit of the central mission. This Ignatian indifference gave a tremendous clarity and focus to the Jesuits, which drove them to accomplish incredible things in the service of their goal.

Mission Focus
While theological concepts from the 16th century seem far removed from local government challenges of the 21st century, the Jesuit emphasis on mission is instructive for today’s finance officers. So often it is easy to become consumed with an increasing number of tasks, which seem to accumulate with each year. We become busier and busier, never feeling caught up or never spending the time on planning that we claim we want.

Barnacle Theory
This phenomenon is similar to the accumulation of barnacles on the hull of a ship below the water line.

Over time, the barnacles increasingly act as a drag on the ship’s ability to move through the water; although everything looks fine above the water line, more effort and engine power are required to make the same rate of progress. Periodically, then, the ship must be taken to dry dock so that the barnacles can be removed and the ship’s performance restored.

Lyrics from the song “Reboot the Mission” by Jakob Dylan and the Wallflowers (2012) sum up the solution succinctly:

“Eyes on the prize/Reboot the mission.
I lost my sight/But not the vision.”

Periodically one must stop and remember, or formulate for the first time, what the essential mission of their unit is. This does not require lofty vision or mission statements, elaborate goals and objectives, or detailed action plans.

Instead, it simply requires some reflection on what it is that an organizational unit brings to the services delivered by the organization. Is the department helping or hindering this delivery? Is the department an overprotective watchdog or a helpful resource for departments trying to provide front line services?

Popular culture reinforces: Indifference –> Focus on the Mission
• Books: The Power of Full Engagement by Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz (2004).
• Movies: Moneyball (2011); Twelve O’clock High (1949); The Untouchables (1987)
• Music: “Reboot the Mission,” Jakob Dylan and the Wallflowers (2012)
• Historical figures: Abraham Lincoln; Ulysses S. Grant; Vince Lombardi

This is part 1 of Kent Austin’s article “How Indifference, Intolerance and Selfishness Make a Better Finance Officer” which will appear in GFOA’s Government Finance Review in February 2013. We’ll publish part 2 and part 3 here on the blog in the coming weeks. Kent is a 1988 graduate of the KU MPA program. He serves as the director of finance for the City of University Park, Texas and is the 2012-13 president of the Government Finance Officers Association of Texas.