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The Federal Coach

Teaching humility and service at the Kennedy School

David Ellwood
David T. Ellwood has been the dean of Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government since July 2004. He previously served as Department of Health and Human Services' assistant secretary for planning and evaluation and co-chair of President Clinton's Working Group on Welfare Reform.

What leadership qualities are you looking for in your Kennedy School of Government graduate students?

We look for real evidence that people care about the public interest and have been engaged in public service. Harvard Kennedy School is a place where our hope and expectation is that our students will be exceptional public leaders. We want to keep the focus on making the world a better place. That is really at the heart and soul of service to me.

How do you educate your students about federal service?

I talk about values, commitment and focusing on the public interest. That's the special glue that holds together a place like the Kennedy School. We come from all over the world, but our common denominator is a shared commitment to making the world a better place, whether through federal service or in another context.

There's one other thing that's hard to teach, but I preach it a lot. That is, in the end, have some humility. It can be difficult, Washington and Harvard are not known for their humility. But the best public servants remember that they serve the public and that requires a capacity to listen and believe that there are a range of ideas out there that you've got to hear.

What are the obstacles to attracting a new generation of public servants?

A lot depends on the way the federal government recruits. The Kennedy School recently led a roundtable examining federal hiring practices, a discussion that included the head of the Office of Personnel Management, the head of human resources for Google, the head of recruiting for General Electric and the head of diversity for IBM, and many others. What we learned is that the best organizations looking to find superb people do it quickly [and] involve the senior leadership personally. But in the federal government quickly and personally is just not how hiring has traditionally been done.

People who enter the federal workforce want to be in situations where their ideas and talent allow them to rise and make a difference rapidly. They don't expect special treatment, but when they work hard and do well, they'd like to be able to move up, make a difference and have real influence. Sometimes the bureaucracy can be, well, bureaucratic.

What did you learn about leadership working in the federal government?

I learned a lot about leadership watching Donna Shalala, Bill Clinton's former secretary of Health and Human Services. She was always upbeat, inspirational and believed we could find a way to move forward on our priorities. She was extremely loyal to her people. There was a period during which some members of Congress were troubled by the direction welfare reform was going, and they started attacking a number of us quite personally. Donna quietly went behind-the-scenes and took on a powerful member of Congress and said, "You can talk about me that way, but you don't treat my people that way." It was a great lesson on simple leadership and loyalty, and it created for me a sense that this is someone who I'm willing to really go to bat for, because she was willing to stand up for me.

Who is your leadership role model and what lessons do you take away from their example?

The first real job I had I worked in a small government consulting firm, and the woman I worked for was terrific. She's now my wife [and] still my boss. I like to say that I've been happily married for over 30 years because I knew who the boss was from day one. As a leader, she thought hard about each individual she worked with, their innate capacities, and how she could draw on those. And she was generous with her praise, but straightforward when people didn't measure up. She was a great manager.

Government leaders, mark your calendars for September 1st! In just three 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

 |  August 10, 2010; 11:27 AM ET |  Category:  View from the Top Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
Previous: Managing your young guns | Next: Managing up vs. managing around


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The Fraud-N-Thief needs a workshop...he must've been absent during his humility training.

Posted by: joesmithdefend | August 13, 2010 8:58 AM

Did Dean Ellwood achieve his government experience as an appointee or did he work his way up the food chain to his high government positions? The reason I ask this is because teaching students about public service while only having served "at the top of the food chain," versus teaching students from the experience base of having worked "in the field," as well as at the top, is an important teaching distinction--a "top down" versus a "bottom up" approach to public service. The Harvard students are not getting proper instruction if they are only getting the "top down," pro-bureaucracy approach to government service, which will only produce "vaseline jar" carrying, white-flag mentality type managers, that in the end will not serve the public good, only their own and those around them at the top of the government management food chain.

Posted by: dozas | August 13, 2010 1:08 AM

Serve the public? Humility?
I waited in the Dulles TSA line for an hour. The public serves the government employees.

Posted by: win_harrington | August 12, 2010 12:06 PM

This piece on the Kennedy School brought to mind the position of the editors of the Harvard Crimson upon being apprised that Harvard College was lowest ranked among all colleges in the nation in terms of average level of humility, according to an AP report several years ago.

Their quite natural reaction has been reported somewhat differently on various occasions, as suggested by the several items shown below (not necessarily in chronological or any other, even quasi-rational order).

From the archives:

Version A

Harvard among colleges was lowest ranked in "humility"
And the Harvard Crimson commented editorially:
"Yes we confess that (IN HUMILITY) Harvard's gone wrong,
But we're trying hard TO IMPROVE, and before very long
Harvard will get the highest ranking for humility in the country!"

Version B

Harvard came in at the bottom
Was rated very low on the “humility” scale;
And the Crimson editor
Had this to say, recently:

We acknowledge our lowly estate
But we can assure everyone that, without fail,
When we set our minds to it,
We’ll earn the highest ranking on that humility scale.

Version C

In national rankings on an ad hoc scale for “humility”
Near the bottom Harvard students happened to be—
The Crimson editorialized that this was not to be taken lightly;
That students would work hard to change, and would surely be better at it, ultimately,
Than any student body in the nation.

Posted by: Gonzage1 | August 11, 2010 12:25 PM

If you want people to work with pride then teach them that they are workers that they are independent contractors. They never work for anyone else. They always work for themselves.

When they go to work for Company X, they agree to work X amount of hours for X amount of pay, the rest of the job and how they handle it is up to them.

You do not have a right to be employed.
You do have a right toe be unemployed.

It's up to you!

Posted by: klassylady25 | August 11, 2010 11:32 AM

Just want to say 3 cheers for the Kennedy School! David Ellwood is a terrific Dean and the school also has awesome professors who are totally devoted to public service, including Marshall Ganz, Linda Bilmes, David Gergen and Nicholas Burns and many others.

Posted by: bogemin | August 11, 2010 11:06 AM

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