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The Federal Coach
Posted at 01:30 PM ET, 09/12/2011

9/11 reflections on leadership

Like every American, I still have vivid memories of Sept. 11, 2001.

I remember the oddly beautiful day. I remember the first person to break the news to me. I remember learning that Leslie Whittington, a former professor at the Georgetown Public Policy Institute, and her family – people I knew – had been killed that day.

This tragic event changed many lives, altered our nation’s history and transformed government through two of the most consequential reorganizations in decades – the creation of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI).

My nonprofit, the Partnership for Public Service, and Booz Allen Hamilton recently released a report that examined the startup and early history of DHS and ODNI to better understand the management challenges, not the policy debates, involved in building these two major government enterprises and to derive lessons that can be applied to future government reorganizations.

Both government organizations had serious growing pains, and are still coping with many management challenges.

Although the emphasis of the report, Securing the Future: Management Lessons of 9/11 , was focused on government restructuring, many of those involved in starting and running DHS and ODNI provided leadership insights that can be applied across the board to the everyday life of all federal agencies. And while some of the recommendations were focused on the top leadership, the advice also applies throughout the management ranks.

First and foremost, we were told that leadership must be clear on the mission and goals of the agency, and effectively communicate that information up and down the organization so that everyone understands the direction, their responsibilities and how they will be held accountable.

A key ingredient to turning the message into reality, the former DHS and ODNI leaders said, is to make sure that all senior executives, both political and career, are on board and in sync. Without such buy-in, they said, the wrong messages will resonate throughout the workforce and the stakeholder communities, and the odds of problems and failure will increase dramatically.

Of course, such buy-ins should not only apply to the upper echelon in a big department, but to managers and their teams at all levels.

Michael Chertoff, the former secretary of DHS, said he found it important to create a sense of shared objectives among the members of his leadership team. He said this led to regular discussions, joint planning and joint strategizing among top component leaders, an approach that helped create a sense of cohesion and a deeper understanding among the different players of each other’s problems, concerns and needs.

This concept certainly is applicable to further down the management food chain, and can serve as a useful approach to creating greater unity within and among agency teams.

There also was much discussion about the less tangible but important issues of building a common culture and sense of shared values, obviously something crucial for a new agency. But even in a mature agency, finding ways to clarify and articulate a core set of values is important. This can be most effectively accomplished by embedding these values into the personnel policies and practices, into award ceremonies and rituals, and by creating both formal and informal incentives.

These were many other insights, including a basic premise that good management is central to mission, and that leaders who do no place importance on creating effective procurement, information technology, human resources and financial systems will find it much harder to accomplish their policy goals.

In the case of DHS and ODNI, many of these leaders acknowledged they learned some of these lessons the hard way, or had the best of intentions that did not come to fruition because of circumstances beyond their control. As federal leaders, this is certainly a fact of life.

If you want to know more about the DHS and ODNI experience and read about some of the personal insights of those who faced many daunting management challenges, you can download the full report .

I would also be interested in hearing your perspective about how the creation of DHS and ODNI transformed government. Please share your ideas and stories on this topic, and post you thoughts below, or email me at fedcoach@ourpublicservice.org.

More from On Leadership:

How to become a great federal leader

Rocking the boat in federal agencies

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By  |  01:30 PM ET, 09/12/2011

 
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