Federal Coach

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

Blog archive

Federal Coach: The passion and persistence of successful federal leaders

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

What does it take to be an effective leader? 

It seems there are as many different theories as there are leaders. A quick search on Amazon produces thousands of book titles, with virtually each one having a unique take on how to lead. 

While many of these books offer invaluable insights, I was struck recently by the personal stories of the winners and finalists for this year’s Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medals (Sammies), the award program run by my organization, the Partnership for Public Service. The awards honor outstanding federal employees whose noteworthy and inspiring accomplishments are seldom recognized or celebrated. 

All of the honorees produced important results, and each had their own approach and unique set of circumstances that helped them achieve success. Yet there were some common traits that stood out – a passion for their work, persistence in reaching their goals, and the importance of collaborating with others to get things done. 

Most of this year’s finalists and winners are operating at high levels in their professions and could make more money in the private sector, but all emphasized their dedication to public service and to their agencies' goals. Several confessed that they would perform their job no matter what they were paid. They seemed to be driven by a moral compass, drawn toward work that improves the country, the world or the human condition.\

Dr. Steven Rosenberg, the chief of surgery at the National Cancer Institute and our 2014 winner for Federal Employee of the Year, has dedicated 40 years to the fight against cancer. He has immersed himself in exploring innovative treatments during nearly every waking moment. He's not punching a timecard, he's pursuing a calling to save people's lives, and persisting even when times are tough.

While curing cancer is one thing, what about public transit? Well, for someone like Adam Schlidge at the Federal Transit Administration, it's easy to see the positive impact he's had on people's lives in comparison to the job he left in the financial services industry.

Schlidge is the public servant responsible for developing and implementing a $3.6 billion grant program to help the Northeast recover from one the worst public transportation disasters in U.S. history following Hurricane Sandy. He developed a novel methodology for evaluating the projects and awarding the grants that helped assess whether proposed transit construction projects would result in reduced damages in the event of another disaster.

“I’ve always known I wanted to work for the public good and I’ve found a good way now to give back to communities across the country,” Schildge said.

Of course passion can wane over time, especially in the face of resistance. Besides the sense of mission, the honorees also exhibited incredible persistence. Change doesn't happen overnight, especially in large organizations like those our federal government.

Take John Wagner, for example. A deputy assistant commissioner at Customs and Border Protection, Wagner had to find the balance between providing heightened security and reasonable wait times for international airline travelers.

In response, Wagner conceived and implemented two groundbreaking programs that fundamentally improved the international arrivals process for returning Americans and the growing number of foreign visitors traveling to the United States. During many years of pushing, prodding and overcoming obstacles, Wagner convinced his superiors to back his plan, secured financing, built in the security features, got buy-in from the airlines and airports around the country, arranged for new technology and the computer software, and fixed problems as they arose.

Jacob Moss of the Environmental Protection Agency represents another example, working for more than a decade to set up an initiative to reduce the air pollution and negative health effects stemming from the use of indoor cook stoves burning fossil fuels in developing countries.

Moss won support from his superiors during two different presidential administrations and built a domestic and international community of public, private and nonprofit organizations to address the issue. Thanks to these partnerships, Moss’s work will prevent at least 470,000 premature deaths, reduce pollution by one billion metric tons and create 1.5 million jobs by 2020. It seems like it may be worth the wait.

Moss’s persistence was complemented by collaboration and teamwork, characteristics illustrated by Mia Beers and the U.S. Ebola Disaster Assistance Response Team from the U.S. Agency for International Development. As Ebola raged through West Africa in 2014, Beers led a 40-person USAID response team, and coordinated the work of a thousand more public servants from five federal agencies working in Liberia, Guinea, Mali and Sierra Leone. She also built relationships with local officials to better understand the culture and customs, and to help them treat people infected with the Ebola virus.

These are just a few of the many dedicated, results-oriented leaders who are working on our behalf. If you know of other highly accomplished public servants and leaders doing great things, please share their stories in the comment section below or email me at fedcoach@ourpublicservice.org.


Posted by Tom Fox, VP for Leadership and Innovation, Partnership for Public Service on Nov 11, 2015 at 12:50 PM

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