February 1995 // Volume 33 // Number 1 // Research in Brief // 1RIB3

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Leadership and Managerial Skills of County Commissioners

An assessment center for public officials was developed by Ohio State University Extension to identify and evaluate managerial and leadership capabilities of current county commissioners representing rural Ohio counties. The study attempted to determine the difference in perceptions of county Extension chairs, county commissioners, and assessors of county commissioners' managerial and leadership skills. Results helped to identify the strengths and weaknesses of the county commissioners leadership and managerial skills and provide a basis for planning personal opportunities.

Susan H. Rinehart, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor
Internet address: hodson.1@osu.edu

Keith L. Smith, Ph.D.

The Ohio State University

The need for effective governance systems has never been greater. Actions by federal and state governments have shifted responsibility for many programs and services to the local level, with local officials being required to make decisions having significant political, social and economic consequences. In Ohio, 12,126 men and women held county, township, and municipal government positions in 1988 (Boothe, 1990). These positions include commissioners, mayors, trustees, auditors, treasurers, and other elected and appointed department heads. Leadership and managerial skills are essential qualities for elected and appointed department heads. Several agencies provide general training for their leaders after they have been in office for a time. Little evidence is available regarding new and emerging elected leaders in small and mid-size communities having access to personal assessment of their public administration and leadership skills (Boothe, 1990).

Turnover is high among elected officials, with nearly 20% of Ohio's elected officials being replaced biennially (Boothe, 1990). Dr. Cornelia Flora (1988), of the Kansas Rural Development Center, has suggested that one characteristic of strong, innovative rural communities is flexible, dispersed leadership. Both high turnover and the need for broad-based public policy leadership point to the growing demand for better preparation of public decision makers.

Local officials, most of whom are part-time volunteers in service to their communities, often find themselves overwhelmed at the number and scope of decisions they must make and the criticism expressed by their constituency. A complaint about public life is that when well motivated individuals leave their comfortable private-sector occupations to take on elected or appointed offices they often find themselves in hopelessly frustrating bureaucratic situations, strangled by red tape and thwarted by poorly designed public processes (Gardner, 1990). Gardner's assessment is probably even more true for those officials in rural areas who face particularly difficult challenges and who have little access to professional advice and expertise. These citizen-leaders must provide an integrated package of programs and services, manage the funds to pay for them, and face the pressures of eliminating some popular programs because local funds are insufficient to support them. Information to make these decisions is not always available and the expertise local officials bring to public office is not always sufficient to do the job (Community Information and Education Service, 1987).

Approach to the Problem

Because of this lack of professional advice, information, and expertise for rural counties, Ohio State University Extension created an assessment center to help current and aspiring county commissioners in identifying their current managerial capabilities and training needs. The assessment center provides a confidential, safe environment for the analysis of job related skills and is composed of eight different exercises which enable participants to demonstrate their abilities on 15 job related dimensions. The 15 dimensions were based on a competency profile of rural Ohio county commissioners developed in February, 1991. The 15 dimensions were: oral communications, written communications, leadership, initiative, planning/organizing, decision making/judgment, development of coworkers, behavioral flexibility, organizational sensitivity, assertiveness, objectivity, perception, sensitivity, management control, and collaborativeness.


Three sets of data were collected in this study. The first data set consisted of performance ratings on the 15 dimensions of the assessment center of each participating county commissioner (N = 16). Assessors observed the commissioners over a two day period as they participated in eight activities to measure their leadership and managerial skills. Activities the commissioners participated in were: background interview, group discussion (assigned roles), group discussion (non-assigned roles), inbasket, interview simulation, fact finding, case study, and press conference. Each commissioner was assigned a lead assessor that compiled a final rating based on a five point Likert-type scale, on each of the 15 dimensions (N = 6). The second data set was collected from county Extension chairs representing the counties of the commissioners who participated in the assessment inventory. A questionnaire soliciting respondents' perceptions of leadership and managerial skills as related to the 15 dimensions was mailed to county Extension chairs. The chairs also rated the commissioners on a five point Likert-type scale. The third data set consisted of assessment center post- evaluations completed by the county commissioners. After completing the two day assessment center process, the commissioners completed a self-evaluation and rated themselves on 15 assessment inventory dimensions. Responses were obtained from 12 of the 16 county commissioners.

Summary of Findings and Implications

Assessors' perceptions of county commissioners' performance in the assessment center ranged in mean scores from 3.348 to 3.813 (Table 1). According to the assessors' ratings, commissioners performed highest on the organizational sensitivity (3.8), assertiveness (3.8), and objectivity (3.8) dimensions. Their lowest mean scores were on the written communications (3.35), perception (3.56), and leadership (3.51) dimensions. As a group, the commissioners' performance was above average in the activities measuring leadership, written communications (3.35), perception (3.56) and leadership (3.51). As a group, the commissioners' performance was above average in the activities measuring leadership, written communication, and perception. They were rated very good on organizational sensitivity, assertiveness, and objectivity.

The assessors' ratings were based on what they observed during the simulation activities of the assessment center. It should be noted that the behavior in one exercise could have influenced the individual dimension ratings. Assessors may have rated the performance of commissioners based on their own idea of what a good manager is. Their ideas may not be appropriate for the job of a county commissioner.

The assessors rated the commissioners well above average, with the majority being rated very good. One explanation is that commissioners who participated in the assessment center are considered "top" commissioners in the state. These individuals participate in training programs to better their performance, and therefore received the high ratings.

Mean scores for the county commissioners self-perceptions ranged from 3.000 to 3.833 (Table 1).

Table 1. Means for assessment center dimensions.
Dimensions Assessors County
Organizational sensitivity 3.8 3.6 4.1
Assertiveness 3.8 3.2 4.2
Objectivity 3.8 3.5 3.7
Development of co-workers 3.8 3.3 3.4
Sensitivity 3.8 3.8 3.5
Collaborativeness 3.8 3.8 3.9
Oral Communications 3.7 3.5 4.4
Initiative 3.7 3.5 3.8
Behavioral flexibility 3.7 3.6 3.3
Decision making/judgment 3.6 3.6 4.0
Management control 3.6 3.0 3.7
Planning and organization 3.6 3.7 3.9
Leadership 3.6 3.3 4.3
Perception 3.6 3.2 3.8
Written communication 3.4 3.2 3.6
Ranges 3.4 to 3.8 3.0 to 3.8 3.3 to 4.4
Scale used to compute means: 1 = poor, 2 = fair, 3 = average, 4 = very good, 5 = excellent.
Accessors n = 6; County Commissioners n = 16; and County Chairs n = 15.

The commissioners did not tend to rate themselves below the average. However, they did score themselves lower than the group of assessors and county chairs. The commissioners' scores indicated that they felt their highest performance was on the sensitivity (3.8), collaborativeness (3.75), and planning and organizing (3.67) dimensions. Their lowest ratings were on the management control (3.0), written communication (3.17), and assertiveness (3.17) dimensions.

While the commissioners did not score themselves below average, they did perceive themselves to be only slightly above average. Note that the self-assessment was taken following their participation in the assessment center, which may have influenced their ratings. They may have realized that what they thought were their strong points could need further development. Additionally, the assessment took place over a two-day period. Measurement of the commissioners leadership and managerial skills may not necessarily indicate how they would perform over time and under stress.

The county Extension chairs rated the county commissioners higher than the other two groups. Mean scores ranged from 3.313 to 4.375 (Table 1). The county chairs perceive the commissioners to perform highest in oral communication (4.38), leadership (4.25), and assertiveness (4.25) and lowest on behavioral flexibility (3.3), development of coworkers (3.38), and sensitivity (3.53). It could be interpreted by the authors that the county chairs typically are in contact and interact with the commissioners on a one-to-one basis. This may explain the highest rating for oral communication. Lower ratings in behavioral flexibility and development of coworkers could be explained by the fact that these county chairs may not clearly understand the dimensions or that they may not see the commissioners in all these dimension roles. The county Extension chairs probably rated the commissioners according to their perception of the commissioners' performance on a daily basis. Their ratings were probably based on how they see the commissioners actually performing on the job.

Ratings by the chairs suggests that the commissioners perform better in "real life" than they did in the assessment process and that others believe them to be higher performers than they believe themselves to be. One limiting factor may be that some of the commissioners were made aware of the assessment center opportunity by the county Extension chairs in their county and may explain the high ranking in leadership. The county chairs may have felt that their commissioners were good leaders and would be good candidates for the assessment center.

Significant differences were among the groups on four of the 15 dimensions. The county Extension chairs/county commissioners and county Extension chairs/assessors differed significantly on the oral communication and leadership dimensions. The assessors/county commissioners and county commissioners/county Extension chairs groups differed significantly on the assertiveness and management control dimensions. County Extension chairs rated the county commissioners much higher than the assessors or the county commissioners rated themselves.


The assessment center serves as a basis for evaluating participating commissioners. Currently, the only evaluation they receive is the vote of their constituents. If they are not elected or re-elected, they can only assume it was due to poor performance. Having experienced the assessment center and upon review of self, assessor, and Extension chair assessments, the commissioners can recognize their strengths and weaknesses and overall potential for self-development. The benefits to the participants might also include a better understanding of what a commissioner does and the qualities needed to be successful. The assessment center ratings provide information to plan a personal development program.

The results of this study helped to identify the strengths and weaknesses of county commissioners' leadership and managerial skills and provide a basis for planning personal opportunities. In addition, the assessment center aids in providing a liaison between Ohio State University Extension and county commissioners by providing research based information.


Boothe, D. (1990). Project Excel. Unpublished manuscript, The Ohio State University Extension.

Community Information and Education Service. (1986). Annual report. Champagne: University of Illinois.

Flora, C., & Flora, J. (1988). The future of rural communities in the great plains (RRA Alert No. 2). Manhattan: Kansas State Cooperative Extension Service.

Gardner, J. W. (1990). On leadership. New York: Free Press.