As the Secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), Tom Vilsack manages a workforce of more than 105,000 employees who are working to strengthen the country’s agricultural economy, revitalize rural communities, protect and conserve natural resources, and provide safe and nutritious food to all Americans. Prior to this position, Vilsack served two terms as the governor of Iowa, the first Democrat elected to that office in more than 30 years.
What do you consider to be a critical event, either educational or experiential, to your becoming the leader you are today?
My adopted mom was an alcoholic and had some serious trouble during a very formative period of time in my life. She was hospitalized in a mental hospital on a couple of occasions and tried to take her own life a couple of times, but on Christmas day of 1963 she made the decision to stop drinking. She never had a job and didn't drive, but she learned how to drive in her 40s and went to work. My dad later passed away and she was a great inspiration in terms of never giving up on something you truly believe in. When you're in politics, that is a really important lesson to learn because there are times when you're running for office when you wonder if it's all going to work out. You have to have that spirit that gets you through those tough times.
As a result of that experience, when I moved to Mt. Pleasant, my wife’s hometown, I came home one day and said, “There have been bond issues that have failed to take care of our kids and provide them decent athletic facilities. I'm going to go out and raise the money myself to build these facilities.” My wife replied, “There are three rules to success in Mt. Pleasant: You have to be a Republican, a Methodist and been born in Mt. Pleasant. You are a Democrat, Catholic and from Pennsylvania. Good luck.” But I didn't give up and we eventually raised the money, which later helped me successfully run for mayor. My mother’s struggle and her ability to overcome extraordinary odds probably informed the way I approach things and perhaps is responsible in part of the success.
What are some of the obstacles to attracting a new generation to public service?
There is fairly consistent criticism that basically suggests there is no purpose for public institutions or those who work in public. I think it's an unfortunate circumstance. When this country got started, public service was the highest service to aspire to and people who chose that path were respected for it, and I don't think that we do a good enough job of recognizing that today; I think it's incumbent upon people like myself to do a better job of educating folks as to what we do and the hard work of folks who are doing it, so that at least there’s a better connection between the public and those who serve the public.
How do you keep your employees motivated and engaged in USDA’s mission?
On the recent federal budget shutdown, it's my responsibility to understand that most employees are living as many Americans do—paycheck to paycheck. That kind of circumstance creates a great deal of stress, and it’s important to say, “I value you, I understand your circumstance and appreciate that you're anxious. I want you to know that I don't know any more about this than you do. I'm communicating to you on a regular basis what I know so it makes the situation a bit less stressful.”
The second thing is putting yourself in the shoes of others and trying to find small ways to reflect that understanding. Whenever I travel, I try to find an opportunity to express appreciation to the people that work for USDA. Unfortunately, and all too frequently, there is a disconnect between the citizens of this country and the good citizens that work in these offices who work hard and struggle every day to try to provide services. It's important for people to know that I think government service is a noble undertaking and public servants work hard and care deeply about the people they're responsible for.
How do you surface ideas and problems at the USDA?
A way of showing respect to employees is making myself available to try to answer questions they have. It gives me a chance to educate, but it also gives me a chance to be educated. If I don’t make myself available and I don’t listen carefully, something may go unattended and the result is that you get employees who are disconnected from either leadership or the goals of the leadership.
People like me may not fully appreciate when we come to Washington the difference between those who are here as political appointees with limited terms and those who are career people who have been around for a while and have more permanency to their effort here. Political appointees need to stop, look and listen from time to time, because there are a lot of things that career folks can share with us that will make our efforts more successful than they otherwise would be. It’s a good balance, but it’s important for the political appointees to respect that balance.
What leadership lessons did you learn as governor of Iowa, and how are you applying them today?
I started out as a small-town mayor in a circumstance that was a bit unique. The mayor of our town was shot and killed in a council meeting by a citizen who was very upset over a sewer problem. Because of that tragedy, the mayor's father asked me to run for mayor [even though] I had not had any involvement in government or elected politics before. The lesson that I took from the aftermath of a very serious and terrible tragedy is the necessity of those in public life to always remember who the ultimate boss is. It's very important for anybody—at any level—to understand that to lead you have to have the confidence of the people.
As governor, I learned the important role of both the internal and external message. The internal message to employees is a message of respect and modeling the behavior you expect folks to live up to. The external message is recognizing that, while you're doing a lot of different things, it's really hard for people to understand them all. It's important for you to try to put them in a frame of reference people can understand and that you repeat them a sufficient number of times to penetrate through all of the other challenges that people have in day-to-day life.
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