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The Federal Coach
Posted at 11:09 AM ET, 09/21/2012

What makes a great federal leader? The stand-out traits of this year’s Service to America honorees

2012 Sammies Medalists. (Photo by Sam Kittner/ - PHOTO BY SAM KITTNER/KITTNER.COM)

As a general rule, successful federal leaders are highly motivated by a public service mission, clearly articulate a vision of what they want to accomplish, are persistent, collaborative and often have bosses who provide them with strong support.

The recipients of this year’s Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medals (Sammies), as has been the case with honorees in the past, share many of these characteristics. And in the process, these stellar federal employees have made medical breakthroughs regarding HIV/AIDS, helped reduce homelessness among veterans, put a notorious international arms trafficker behind bars, enhanced border security and greatly improved the lives of combat amputees.

I asked a few of the winners of the 2012 Service to America Medals what factors have helped them succeed.

(See photos and bios of this year’s winners:)

Having a vision and following through. A leader must able to see what’s possible, articulate that vision, set clear and measurable goals to reach the desired outcome, and not be deterred by roadblocks along the way. Sammies winner Mark Johnston, part of the team from the Departments of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and Veterans Affairs (VA), said HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan and others in leadership made clear they wanted to end veterans homelessness by 2015. “They just didn’t set a vague goal. They created a strategic plan to get it done.”

Johnston said leaders at the VA have consistently provided the support needed to move forward, resulting in a 12-percent reduction in one year. To keep the initiative on track, he noted Donovan and Deputy VA Secretary Scott Gould have held regular meetings with the team to “ask tough, candid questions to pinpoint problems and identify solutions” so they could move forward.

Thomas Roland, a Sammies winner who helped create a smartphone application that allows customs and border agents in the field to access law enforcement databases in real time, put it this way: “See the big picture. Often times, it is difficult just to get out of our own little harbor.  A leader needs to able to clear the turning basin and get the ship out to sea to get to the next port.”

At the same time, Roland noted, leaders need to plow ahead despite the obstacles. “You cannot possibly be all things to everyone and sometimes, just sometimes, you are going to chip the china.” Roland is a program manager with the Office of Field Operations at U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

Resilience and patience. No matter how worthy the mission or the individual idea, federal leaders will always encounter setbacks and they may even face public attacks. They must possess an internal strength, especially when fixing complex problems or starting new initiatives, as well as recognize that achieving a worthy goal requires time and sticking with the project.

Dr. Lynne Mofenson, who at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) played a pivotal role in greatly reducing the mother-to-child transmission of the HIV virus, said the lessons she learned are: “Work hard, be persistent, but also be patient. It takes multiple small steps to be able to achieve a goal, and it is often only in retrospect that you can see what you have accomplished.”  

Neal Young, another physician at NIH who developed a highly successful treatment for a deadly blood disease, made the same point. “Perseverance is essential. Some days are not so good, so you have to be in for the long haul.”

Leading by example. It is easy to talk the talk, but leaders sometimes have to stick their necks out to deliver the goods. They also should be role models that others will want to follow.

Roland said Phil Landfried, executive director of the Customs and Border Protection’s Targeting Analysis and System Program Office, is “one of those ‘lead, follow or get out of my way’ types who always challenges us to run faster and jump higher. Our country is safer because of Phil.”

James Cash, a Sammies winner and National Transportation Safety Board expert on black box recording devices, said there are many ways to lead, but added, “I believe you will be rewarded for giving what you do your best effort and others will follow your example.” 

As someone who has been witness to 11 years of Sammies winners, I can report that they all possess a pride in what they do, a sense of humility even as they stand out among the crowd, a drive to succeed and, most of all, a strong public-service ethic. Our country is a better place for their efforts.

What characteristics do you think makes an outstanding federal leader? Please send me your ideas by posting your comments here online or sending an email to

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By  |  11:09 AM ET, 09/21/2012

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