Federal Coach

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

Blog archive

Federal Coach: How top federal leaders define leadership

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

During the past several years, I have asked a number of Cabinet secretaries and other top Obama administration officials about their leadership philosophies and styles, and the lessons they have learned from managing a large workforce. I decided to collect highlights from their answers in one place, in the hope that they offer current and aspiring leaders a few important tips about focusing on the mission, setting expectations and engaging more meaningfully with employees.

When asked about his leadership and management philosophy, Secretary of Labor Thomas E. Perez said, “Whether you’re a first-line supervisor or the head of an entire agency, you should be asking career staffers: What do you think?”

Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker said “the biggest priority in any leader's job is to put together a team and really empower the team. Another thing I've been trying to do is provide a culture where people are proud to work, feel appreciated and understand the mission.”

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy noted “my goal is to make sure that we set clear expectations. I’m a big believer in keeping my eye on where we want to go, but really listening to people about the best way to get there. It’s important to engage people so that when you’re asking your people to do something, they know why and they know that they are capable of doing what you’re asking them to do.”

Julián Castro, secretary of Housing and Urban Development, described his leadership style as "a very close-to-the-ground approach. I think of myself as a 'man in the crowd' type of leader, in the sense of being close to employees, getting a sense from them of the challenges and the opportunities that we have and what we need to do to be better. I’ve made a point of spending a lot of time walking the building at HUD and listening to employees. I also have been going to our regional and field offices.”

On surfacing ideas and problems at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Secretary Tom Vilsack said, “A way of showing respect to employees is making myself available to try to answer questions they have. It gives me a chance to educate, but it also gives me a chance to be educated. If I don’t make myself available and I don’t listen carefully, something may go unattended and the result is that you get employees who are disconnected from either leadership or the goals of the leadership.”

When asked about her leadership principle, Maria Contreras-Sweet, administrator of the Small Business Administration, said: “Leadership is about making sure that others are resourced and able to accomplish what they need to accomplish.”

Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, noted that the best leadership advice he has received during his career is “lead by example and set a vision that people can understand if you want them to follow and help you to fulfill your mission. Do not be afraid to hire the best people and, once you get them, do not micromanage them. Give them a vision and a mandate and get out of their way. Never stop listening and learning no matter how high you get in the food chain. Always be fair and consistent in the principles that guide your decisions, because there will be people who disagree. If you are consistent, they will at least respect you when you make your decisions.”

Victor Mendez, former administrator of the Federal Highway Administration and now deputy secretary of Transportation, has learned from different bosses that “you must listen to what other people are telling you. There's a lot of intelligence and experience within our work environment, and we should always listen to that kind of experience. At the end of the day, people really appreciate when you listen to their perspective. You discover new ideas. It also doesn't mean that you always agree. And just because you're the administrator doesn't mean that you have all the answers. It does mean that I have a perspective and opinion, but have to believe that solutions get better when you listen to other people.”

Former astronaut and now director of NASA's Johnson Space Center, Ellen Ochoa said: “Some of my colleagues in the astronaut office were Marines, and they would tell me that in the Marines they had two goals: accomplish the mission and take care of your people. I find myself coming back to that because I think it's a great thing to remember. It boils everything down to two straightforward and important goals. I'm trying to make sure that the people here have the skills and the infrastructure that are going to allow us to accomplish our mission of advancing human space exploration. It's partly about making sure we're safe and successful, but it's also that my center is prepared to carry out that mission for many years into the future.”

Posted by Tom Fox, VP for Leadership and Innovation, Partnership for Public Service on Jun 30, 2015 at 1:09 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