Federal Coach

By Tom Fox, VP for Leadership and Innovation, Partnership for Public Service

Blog archive

Federal Coach: Leadership lessons from this year’s Service to America award winners

(Fox's Federal Coach column was originally published on The Washington Post On Leadership site.)

This is a special time of year for me because my organization, the Partnership for Public Service, holds its annual gala where we present the Service to America Medals (Sammies) to outstanding and often unheralded public servants who have made extraordinary contributions to our nation.

We like to call the awards the “Oscars of Government Service,” and on Thursday, September 13, we will be presenting nine medals to very deserving federal workers. Each of the medal recipients has a remarkable story of achievement, from leading the prevention of AIDS in children to medical and scientific advances for our nation’s combat amputees and the saving of millions of taxpayer dollars through smart procurement practices.

While they are all great examples of federal leaders, each of the honorees have noted that individuals throughout their careers served as role models and helped inspire and develop them as leaders. No matter our age, we all need leadership role models. They can be historical figures, present day leaders, colleagues, mentors, friends or even family members.

Here are some of the Partnership’s 2012 Sammies medal recipients’ role models and what they learned about from then about leadership:

Mark Johnston of the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) leads an interdepartmental program that reduced veterans homelessness by 12 percent in one year.

He has three leadership role models. The first is HUD SecretaryShaun Donovan. Johnston noted that, at the beginning of Donovan’s tenure, he held a meeting with employees and touted what the Bush administration had accomplished in reducing street homelessness. Because it was effective, Donovan announced he was readily embracing that same effort. “I was very impressed and frankly stunned, as I’ve rarely seen in my nearly 30 years as a career employee an incoming secretary even acknowledge much less embrace and build on successes of previous administrations, especially from another party. The takeaway for me has been to critically and objectively assess what works best in solving a problem, proceed and stay the course,” said Johnston. 

The second is Johnston’s manager for HUD’s homeless assistance programs, Ann Oliva. According to Johnston, Oliva “has led her office to accomplish remarkable things in just a few years, measurably and positively impacting every city and county in the nation. Her passion is contagious, rubbing off on all those around her, including myself. Through her example I’m reminded that finding something for which you have real passion enhances your ability to accomplish great things.”

Johnston’s third role model is author Steven Covey who was a professor at the university he attended. Johnston said, “While I never took a class with him, I sought out his help regarding an academic issue. This very busy professor listened carefully and then offered to help. What he did then was a leadership principle I have valued over the years: First seek to understand, and then seek to be understood. In leading people, I have found it vital to take the time to first clearly understand the other person’s (or organization’s) point of view before pressing my own opinions. It has helped me time and time again to establish and gain trust and to more effectively resolve issues.” 

Susan Angell of the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) leads the homeless veterans initiative team with Johnston.

Angell said she learned a great deal about leadership working with Suzanne Griffin in Afghanistan to build health-care capacity. Suzanne Griffin worked for International Medical Corp, and Angell, on loan to the Department of Health and Human Services, was assigned to work with Griffin and her team. “We worked in deplorable conditions, and what I learned from her is to not underestimate human capability to succeed in the worst of conditions. She taught me not to lower standards because of difficulty, but rather to breakdown success into small pieces and celebrate the small steps to success.”

Angell added that she believes German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and International Monetary Fund Managing Director Christine Lagarde trulyhave an impact our entire world today. “Each of these women has enormous responsibility, impact and influence on the health of our world. Each has had both personal and professional challenges that were visible to the entire world. What I learn from them is standing with strength during complex and dangerous times. Each of them is required to engage a broad range of partners to succeed in their mission. And each of them speaks with conviction when given the opportunity further the mission. They rise above gender biases with clarity and confidence that comes from an incredible foundation of knowledge and competence.”

At the National Institute of Child Health and Development (NICHD), Lynne Mofenson has played a pivotal role in preventing the AIDS epidemic among children.

Through her many years working in public health, Mofenson has been affected by two supportive supervisors who encouraged her to move into new areas of work, “I owe my career to Dr. George Grady, my former boss in the Massachusetts Health Department, and Dr. Anne Willoughby, who was my supervisor at NICHD for many years. They both encouraged me to pursue ideas and collaborations that others felt could not be accomplished and to move into new areas of research in which I had little initial experience. Anne’s confidence and trust in me enabled me to build networks of pediatric and obstetric researchers that helped to result in the remarkable gains we have made in pediatric and maternal HIV infection.”

Mofenson said “they were both incredibly intelligent and hard-working people who were dedicated to their goals and led by example, but were modest about their own achievements. They told people what to do, but not how to do it. They encouraged innovative and creative thinking and then provided the support needed to move these ideas forward, stepping in only when really needed.”

James Cash has worked for nearly three decades at the National Transportation Safety Board as the government’s top expert on cockpit voice recorders.

Cash said most of his leadership style was formed by his tour with the military. “I always had a strong work ethic which was formed by growing up in a farming community where you had your assigned duties and it was expected of you do perform them. The military tour reinforced these ideals. I have always led by example and never asked someone to do something I wasn’t prepared to do myself.”

“Growing up in high school, I had a principal that shaped me by being a firm but fair role model. I have never forgotten these experiences and use his examples every day,” he added.

Who are your leadership role models? What lessons have you taken away from their examples? Please send me your ideas by sending an email to fedcoach@ourpublicservice.org.

Posted by Tom Fox, VP for Leadership and Innovation, Partnership for Public Service on Sep 25, 2012 at 4:02 PM

Reader comments

Please post your comments here. Comments are moderated, so they may not appear immediately after submitting. We will not post comments that we consider abusive or off-topic.

Please type the letters/numbers you see above.

2021 Digital Almanac

Stay Connected

Latest Forum Posts

Ask the Expert

Have a question regarding your federal employee benefits or retirement?

Submit a question