On Leadership
Video | PostLeadership | FedCoach | | Books | About |
Exploring Leadership in the News with Steven Pearlstein and Raju Narisetti

The Federal Coach

Young government leaders: Lessons for the next generation

Facebook recently marked the 500 million user milestone. With this accomplishment, the social networking website has more people than the populations of the United States, Indonesia and Brazil.

In all of its amazing success, it's easy to forget that Facebook is run by Mark Zuckerberg, a leader who is only 26 years old. Last week, the Washington Post's Leadership Playlist blog had a thought-provoking post on Zuckerberg's leadership. This analysis, along with a question I received from a friend, got me thinking about the challenges facing young federal leaders.

For someone like Zuckerberg, those challenges often involve dealing with seasoned corporate and financial titans who could be his father or grandfather, and who may not necessarily consider him their equal even as they grasp the power and economic value of his enterprise.

Young federal leaders have their own set of challenges on a daily basis, and face issues of great consequence to the American people --leading people who are performing cutting-edge work that supports our economy, defends our rights, safeguards our neighborhoods, protects our environment and heals our sick.

Like Zuckerberg, they regularly work with people who have far more experience and must supervise their elders--many of whom may think they are smarter and wiser than that enthusiastic, wide-eyed young fed.

Here is some advice for young government leaders who have that sinking feeling that everyone around them is asking, "Who's this new kid telling me how to do my job?"

Be confident -A friend recently told me a story from her first federal supervisory experience. When confronted by a colleague who said, "There's a rumor going around that your only 25 years old. That's impossible!" My friend responded, "You're right. I'm 24, and I'm leading this team because I'm good at my job." Whether someone is brashly questioning your ability or you're encountering your own self-doubt, remember there's a reason you were chosen to lead.

But have some humility - Of course, too much confidence can be perceived as arrogance. Don't pretend to have all of the answers. In fact, it's more important that you ask the right questions as a leader. One of the best pieces of feedback that I've ever received came from a team member. She told me that she appreciated that I ask, "What do you think?" whenever she sought my guidance. This simple question can help empower your employees and build confidence to make decisions on their own.

Do your homework - In some ways, your learning is just beginning when you become a leader. Even if your agency doesn't have the resources for a leadership development program, take time out of your busy schedule to learn more about leadership in your agency. Find an HR expert who can give you the ins and outs of hiring. Identify an experienced leader in your agency who is admired by many who can share tips on how to navigate the unique personalities present on every team. Keep up-to-date on topics relevant to being an outstanding and effective leader by reading books, articles and websites like OnLeadership that provide the latest insight about leading and inspiring people.

Are you an experienced leader who remembers those difficult, early days as a leader? Are you a new leader who's found some success? Please share your ideas by leaving a comment or emailing me at fedcoach@ourpublicservice.org.

Please check back on Wednesday, when I interview the Administrator of the U.S. General Services Administration, Martha Johnson.

Government leaders, mark your calendars for September 1st! In just four weeks the Partnership for Public Service will be releasing its highly-anticipated 2010 Best Places to Work in the Federal Government rankings. An important tool for federal leaders, the rankings are the most comprehensive and authoritative rating and analysis of employee satisfaction and commitment in the federal government. Agency leaders use the BPTW rankings in their recruitment and retention efforts, as well as to provide managers and leaders with a road-map for boosting employee engagement. To learn more, visit bestplacestowork.org.

By Tom Fox

 |  July 30, 2010; 3:23 PM ET |  Category:  Getting Ahead Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
Previous: Help! A subordinate is undermining my authority | Next: Strategic leadership and learning to 'fail forward'


Please email us to report offensive comments.

It always blows my mind how simplistic and frankly self-serving and arrogant we humans can be - as so many of these comments show.

For every "youngish" person in over his or her head in a leadership position - and there are many- there is an "oldish" person who doesn't really care about providing meaningful service, is unaware of important changes happening in his "field" in the real world, or is just plain not very smart.

That same person may or may not have developed a good understanding of the bureaucratic game and may be able to use that knowledge to undo important, meaningful, and well-designed changes. That's not really something to be proud of, though if that's the only "power" or "useful" knowledge you have, I suppose you might like to brag about it.

Put another way - for every young leader who overestimates the value of his knowledge, there is an older person who overestimates the value of his experience.

Reality is unfortunately, very complex, and many of the skills involved in leading - as one commenter pointed out - are often innate and found in people of all ages and many very experienced professions will never be leaders because that isn't their strength.

Some "book smart" people have information that is actually very important - as important as the experience that others have - and the trick is always trying to bring these things together in a productive way - not easy regardless of how old anyone involved is.

Posted by: Guigy | August 4, 2010 12:55 AM


There are several millenia's worth of great works devoted exclusively to the topic of leadership, and what you have written, compared to those works, is perhaps the stupidest collection of ideas ever assembled on the topic.

Posted by: Wallenstein | August 3, 2010 11:10 PM

All of this angst about job succession in government. The same thing goes on in private sector...in many cases less acountably to shareholders and established employees.

What is usually happening is institutionalized de facto age discrimination. The young, wet-behind-the-ears types come in at lower salaries, or with the intention of downstaffing.

They are less of a threat to senior management. Usually their greatest asset. Judgement is not their strong suit.

In government...things just run as slow as they always did. Minimal repercussions.

In private, well look at the fee driven soft underwriting mortgage boom of the early 2000's followed by the mortgage backed security collapse that got us into our current economic mess.

Everyone has forgotten Fab what's his name....what was he when he started? 24?

Posted by: poorrichard | August 3, 2010 5:00 PM

Prosperity2008 - Wow, all that experience in just three short years?

You still don't get it, do you?

Experience and guile beat youthful exuberance every time.

Especially when you think three years of work imparts "experience".

Posted by: oldiesfan1 | August 3, 2010 4:40 PM

God help us from federal bureaucrats, whether they be leaders, followers or just plain barnacles.

Like the bright young PROSPERITY 2008, they think going to "as many meetings and conference calls within our agency as [they] [are] allowed to attend" is work.

All the decisions they make fall on the shoulders (and bank accounts) of the citizens of this country -- businesspeople, managers, laborers, consultants, teachers, firemen, police, doctors, and so on who actually do REAL work that produces real value.

Washington sucks up our tax dollars and finds creative ways of wasting it, like getting monkeys high on cocaine.

Recently, I saw the original Department of War in Philadelphia. It was housed in half of a small, two-story building. The Emperor Augustus ran the Roman Empire with the help of three or four scribes. President Abraham Lincoln's "bureaucracy" and White House staff consisted of Nichols and Hays, and somehow he found time to run the war, execute the laws -- and even write his own speeches. (Part of the reason he could so much with so little was he didn't waste his time regulating the amount of dust farmers raise when plowing, like the EPA wants to do.)

The federal "leaders" would do well to emulate Augustus and Lincoln, and leave the real work to real Americans in the 50 states. They could start by resigning and getting real jobs.

Posted by: spamagnet987 | August 3, 2010 4:00 PM

Someone somewhere said age is a state of mind, however the sage part of this article
contradicts itself by advising the young one
to seek out a "experienced leader" who is popular and admired. It took time and "experience" which obviously the writer of this article is trying hard to depreciate.
There is a place for all types of leadership, the problem is that for some reason experience is being devalued. Many experienced workers have lost their jobs simply because they were experienced, and not because they were less productive, energetic, or forward thinking. While many an inexperienced arrogant individual has been hired and caught attempting to pick the brains of the experienced employees.

Posted by: ldybug1 | August 3, 2010 3:56 PM

Well said, Wallenstein. That sort of self-hypnosis is what "management training" and columns like this are ultimately about.

Posted by: bigbrother1 | August 3, 2010 3:20 PM

"I'm sorry, but this confusion between "your" and "you're" is unacceptable for someone that is published in the WP."

Ahang - don't you mean for someone WHO is published in the WP?

Posted by: ViennaVA4 | August 3, 2010 3:20 PM

None of these suggestions has anything to do with good leadership, obviously. They are about convincing yourself that you're not a bad leader.

Posted by: Wallenstein | August 3, 2010 2:52 PM

In the federal government, fresh-faced new kids who think are going to change the world are usually just over-privileged morons. Either they learn or they move on to a place that supports them in their stupidity.

In any large organization - whether its business or government - things actually get done by the people who 1) know how the system "works" and 2) use that knowledge to avoid official channels so that something can actually get done.

Top-down managers are at best idiots and and worst tyrants who put more effort into amassing territory and keeping people "in line" than in determining and accomplishing valuable goals.

We all know this. That's why comics like Dilbert or shows like The Office ring true for us.

Posted by: bigbrother1 | August 3, 2010 2:42 PM

Young political appointee "leaders"
The "old guys"

Don't forget you will be LONG GONE while we are still going to be dealing with your bright idea. If you don't get buy-in from the rank and file, we'll make sure your idea goes v e r y s l o w.

Posted by: Island_Boy | August 3, 2010 1:01 PM

From one of the comments: "Good article, and its refreshing to see support..."

"its refreshing" ??

Now. GD1975...READ the comments before commenting.

Posted by: CapnPequod | August 3, 2010 12:45 PM

I think that young professionals can just consider it hazing and be proactive.

Even though I have an MPA and a PhD, I am young and look even younger than I am which is a double whammy in leadership positions. I knew I got hired because I was smart, accomplished and capable--not because I looked like I was in high school, so I used to respond a lot like the first person in the article which just came off as an arrogant Doogie Howser. Since that didn't work so well and only caused me a lot of problems, I switched over to the second tactic, seeking advice from my elders, only to be caught unawares again (some people will give you the wrong information to sabbotage you--I learned the hard way).

After a very rocky first year, what finally worked for me was getting my hands dirty and learning. I put in for hands on training, went on details to other offices and divisions and signed up to attend as many meetings and conference calls within our agency as I was allowed to attend. Over the next 2 years, that gave me a lot of broad knowledge about my agency and a lot of contacts within my agency. Now, even though I still look young (maybe college age by now), the "old timers" who used to haze me or snitch on me behind my back come to me for help and advice. They ask me to introduce them to my contacts in the agency who can help them with their work.

So, I think the lesson is that knowledge is power and if you are a young professional with book smarts, go out and get some practical smarts and then your age will never again be an issue (other than the people who will marvel at how you know so much at such a young age!).

Posted by: Prosperity2008 | August 3, 2010 10:41 AM

"Your" and "it's" are both used correctly in this article. I'm sorry, but these criticisms are unacceptable.

Posted by: GD1975 | August 3, 2010 10:13 AM

"I'm sorry, but this confusion between "your" and "you're" is unacceptable"

What confusion, in the passage "your" was used to refer to the learning experience and is correct.

"In some ways you are learning is just beginning" would not be correct.

Posted by: BEEPEE | August 3, 2010 9:16 AM

I agree with you, ahang, about "you're" and "your." Unfortunately we must remember that the Post, in its efforts to stay afloat, has gutted its copy editing department, and that the online staff, at least (as opposed to the print side), has never had much of a copy editing staff to begin with. They're all those new, hip, young, trendy IT and Webby types, for whom things like proper grammar and punctuation are just so yesterday.

Regarding the phrase, "many of whom may think they are smarter and wiser than that enthusiastic, wide-eyed young fed," perhaps those old codgers are, yanno, maybe right. Perhaps the truly smart and wise thing for that brash young fed whippersnapper to do would be to first distinguish which old-timers know their stuff, and which don't. ("Wiser" derives from "wisdom," and wisdom is almost always a function of age and experience, not a course they teach at the Harvard Business School. Meanwhile, "smart" may simply be an innate quality equally possessed by a 24-year-old as well as a 62-year-old, although one component of "smart" might be an accrual of knowledge about how the world really works, viz., "street smarts.")

Posted by: curmudgeon6 | August 3, 2010 9:10 AM

thank you ahang...likewise "it's" vs. "its" on the part of our posters...how hard can that be? Do they not teach that simple rule anymore?

Posted by: CapnPequod | August 3, 2010 8:59 AM

Good article, and its refreshing to see support for young professionals leading teams.

But its one thing to lead a team on the basis of degreed experience in the field, great ideas, command of technology, or cutting edge integration of procedures, and another entirely to lead with an understanding of people, of managing people.

That is a skill in itself that can seldom be taught, and takes constant vigilance for proper development.

Where young leaders so often fail is in being so very green when it comes to wisdom--how to engage people through listening, validating, drawing out and building upon strengths while gently nurturing weaknesses to become strengths.

Of course, some truly gifted young professionals do have these skills, either innately, or because they recognized the need to cultivate effective people skills and did it. But the majority often do not, as it takes time and perspective to recognize and then hone people development skills.

If there's one thing young leaders should do it is admit to the likelihood of this area of weakness and then apply that infamous enthusiasm of their youth to processes that help them reflect, look within, listen, learn, and see more deeply into the human condition, and from that point of view, strengthen leadership skills even more.

Posted by: lindsaycurren | August 3, 2010 8:50 AM

A young person who takes a leadership spot and who who does not respect the older and more experienced staff does so at their peril. That staff usually knows how to do their job, they know where the difficult parts of the job are and how to perform their job. Indeed because so many managers feel they can retire into their jobs, staffs often have taken care of many of the details of the job for a long time.
It would be a good idea for a new leader to learn the rules of their agency and to understand what their staff is doing before charging in and making sweeping changes. Also it would be appreciated by your staff if they do not feel they are being used as a stepping stone to a higher position at their expense.

Posted by: OhMy | August 3, 2010 8:31 AM

...as opposed to just being smarter *or* wiser ;)

Posted by: dubya1938 | August 3, 2010 4:46 AM

I'm sorry, but this confusion between "your" and "you're" is unacceptable for someone that is published in the WP.

Posted by: ahang | August 3, 2010 2:07 AM

The comments to this entry are closed.

RSS Feed
Subscribe to The Post

© 2010 The Washington Post Company