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In the leadership wilds: An interview with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Daniel Ashe

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Daniel Ashe is the director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the nation's principal federal agency dedicated to the conservation of fish and wildlife and their habitats. He previously served as deputy director for policy, science advisor and as chief of the 150 million-acre National Wildlife Refuge System. Ashe spoke with Tom Fox, who writes the Washington Post’s Federal Coach blog and is the director of the Partnership for Public Service’s Center for Government Leadership.

What leadership lessons did you learn from your father, a longtime employee of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service?

My dad enjoyed a 37-year career at the Fish and Wildlife Service, beginning in 1953. I learned many things about leadership from him, the most important of which is that great leaders have strong character. During my time here, there have been few things more valuable than my dad’s good reputation. It was certainly an asset for me when I first came to the organization mid-career and at an executive level. Because people knew him and thought favorably of him, they also thought favorably of me. I know it was a testament to his good character, which, for me, encompasses a mixture of notable qualities like humility, humor, courage, resilience and, perhaps most importantly, integrity.

What else has shaped your leadership style?

Over the years, I’ve learned that great leadership has elements of both art and science. It is not something you are born with, but something you develop through practice and dedication.

It’s important to know your strengths and weaknesses and to be surrounded by the very best people. During my time as director, I’ve had exceptional deputies working for me, so I know how important it is to choose a great deputy. You want somebody who has the confidence and the courage to pull you aside and tell you when the emperor has no clothes — or in my case when I’m being overly competitive or stubborn, or maybe when I’m setting the wrong example and sending emails to employees at 11:30 at night.

What do you do to ensure that the employees at your organization are motivated and engaged?

Our employees come to the organization motivated by the work we do. Our focus here, therefore, is on maintaining that motivation over the course of their careers. We have more than 700 field offices. With our people out in communities all over the country, something we like to emphasize is accomplishment. We’ve found that our employees want to know how their work is having an effect on the success of the agency as a whole. We are constantly trying to find ways of reminding them of what we’re trying to accomplish on a larger scale and how the work they do on the field level is adding up and contributing to our vision.

What are some of the long-term issues on the agenda that you are trying to convey to employees?

We’re trying to get them engaged in thinking about the future and the challenges that this organization will face — things like changing climate systems and what that means for fish and wildlife. It can seem overwhelming, especially because we don’t control the cause. The big leadership challenge is building awareness and maintaining a spirit of optimism where we can move forward.

How have you and your organization responded to the harsh budget-cutting climate?

At the organizational level, we’ve become very savvy in how we navigate the federal budget process. In fiscal 2011, we suffered an 11-percent budget reduction. For us, that amounted to about $130 million in cuts. Needless to say, it was a pretty bitter pill to swallow.

At the beginning of this year, when we saw proposals for another 22 percent in cuts for the agency, we immediately asked ourselves, “What can we do about this?”

We tried to remain calm. We got ourselves up to Capitol Hill, ready to make our case. We met with key leaders in the House and Senate and at the same time began working with individuals across government to organize a strong conservation community to support us. Even Secretary Salazar got involved, helping to build a coalition of more than a thousand organizations.

Ultimately, we ended up with a fiscal budget that included about a 1.5-percent reduction for our agency — quite a turnaround. I attribute our success to our commitment to staying calm, leaning on our friends and, above all else, being able to make a strong case.

In addition to your father, are there other people who have been big influences?

I’ve had this uncanny habit of falling into jobs where I’ve had great bosses. This was especially important at the beginning of my career, when I was fortunate enough to work for outstanding public servants on Capitol Hill. They were ethical, conscientious, fair-minded individuals who turned out to be great mentors for me during a very critical time.

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