The Washington Post

Timothy Wirth on leadership: A conversation with the UN Foundation president and former U.S. representative

What do you think are the obstacles to attracting a new generation to public service? How can federal leaders help overcome these obstacles and inspire them to serve?

Mentoring is a big component [especially] in terms of selection. I feel enormously grateful for the mentoring that I had, and I want to do all that I can to help pay that back. You have to spend time thinking about who you're going to bring in and what you're going to have them do. When I was on the Hill, I tried to make sure we had real jobs for these kids. It's not just having them come in and say, “Gee whiz, I had an internship.” You want them to say, “I want to work for the government.” Public service is a great thing.

What do you consider to be a critical event – either educational or experiential – to your becoming the leader you are today?

I think the most important event, other than family, might well have been Bobby Kennedy. When he got killed, that really propelled me into politics. I was going to go back to Stanford, finish a Ph.D. and be a university president, but that looked like a pretty fallow world after that year in Washington, 1968. The city was on fire and burning, Kennedy got shot, Lyndon Johnson quit, John Gardner quit. Oh, it was an amazing time. It's that set of experiences that made me say, “Wait a minute; we can't let this sort of thing happen.” That's when I went back to Colorado and started to run for public office.

What did you learn about leadership as a congressman, and how did you apply this knowledge during your tenure as the first Under Secretary of State for Global Affairs?

The difference in experience between the House and Senate is very significant. These two institutions are very different, and what you learn in the two places is also very different. When I was in the House, [Tip] O'Neill's leadership style was to open up as many channels as possible for young talent and encourage them. You learn a lot from somebody who is willing to give people a chance to really run with something. Then you get to the Senate and people in the senior positions hog all of those senior positions and are very reluctant and jealous of young people coming in and are not particularly successful at using young talent.

When I got to the State Department, I found out two things. One is that I really thought I had knowledge about things, and I didn't. You're dealing with a thousand issues when you're in the House or particularly the Senate. You're supposed to be an expert on everything, and you can't possibly be. Then you get into an area where you really have to know a few areas very well, and you come to realize very quickly how much you don’t know.

The other is that the State Department did not have the institutional flexibility that I had come to really enjoy in the House. I was starting a whole new area at State called global affairs and the resistance to that was significant.

How do keep your employees motivated and engaged in the UN Foundation’s mission and work?

We're now at about 180 people, and it’s one of the few growing institutions in this particular economic climate. We have just changed from being a foundation, maybe a misnomer, because we're not a grant-making institution anymore. We [now] use the funds to catalyze a number of campaigns, such as measles and polio eradication, and cluster our people around these campaigns.

Kathy Calvin, who is our CEO and who worked previously with Steve Case at AOL, knew a lot about managing in a very large, complex organization. We are a team with very different experiences, and she has done a wonderful job of knitting the vertical and horizontal together with the philosophy of nourishing young people as much as possible.

What are the leadership lessons that you have learned from Ted Turner, the founder and chairman of the UN Foundation?

Ted Turner is an extraordinary idealist and visionary. People think of him as sort of brash and the swagger, which he has, but they don't really stop and think about his genius. He can look at this reality that you and I might see, and he sees something quite different. He sees a new construct [about] where are things going, and that's his genius.

Along with his vision and genius is this attention to detail of doing it right. If you go to his ranches, they're the most beautiful places you've ever been, because every piece of barbed wire is picked up and everybody knows they're going to get taken care of. He hires very good people, gives them room to run, delegates to them, and they know that they're accountable. I hope that is what I've been able to transmit into the UN Foundation. Watching Ted run his organization; it's a great model.

More from On Leadership:

Tom Vilsack on growing into politics

Are you listening to me, boss?

Woes of the recently promoted

Be in the know on everything we’re covering here at The Post’s On Leadership section. Follow us on Twitter (@post_lead) and “like” our page on Facebook (On Leadership at The Washington Post).

Tom Fox, of the Partnership for Public Service, explores workplace issues and provides advice for federal managers through analysis, interviews and reader Q&As in his Federal Coach blog for On Leadership.


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