David Strickland is the administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), the agency dedicated to reducing automotive crash -related injuries and fatalities while ensuring safety on the nation's roadways. He previously served for eight years on the staff of the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation. Strickland 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 influenced your career choice?
Sometimes you find your calling and sometimes your calling finds you. In my case, it’s a bit of the latter.
I’ve always had a particular interest in technology and automobiles, but I never thought of it in the career sense. I practiced law in the private sector for three years, and although I was intellectually challenged, I was spiritually unfulfilled. I transitioned into doing some policy work for an association for five years, which led me to the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee. I began working with NHTSA as their lead staffer in the Senate, which ultimately gave me the opportunity to serve this administration. It’s one of these things where you follow your passion and you find what you're successful at and where you’re needed.
What leadership lessons did you gain on Capitol Hill?
Sen. Daniel Inouye of Hawaii taught me the core lesson of how one can govern and learn to disagree without being disagreeable. It isn't a notion of compromise for compromise sake, but how to come together as public servants and protectors of the public trust and how to make things better for every American.
Do you have other leadership role models and lessons from their examples?
In terms of leadership, my father was my greatest influence. He was a military man and had served in Vietnam. He was very assertive and authoritative, but he had a wonderful human touch with how he dealt with people. His notion of being personally accountable formed the core of my approach to management and life.
When I was at Northwestern University, I began as a midshipman in the Naval ROTC and, of course, we had boot camp. I learned a number of life and leadership lessons from my gunnery sergeant. He taught me how you celebrate the team’s success and embrace the team’s shortcomings and failures. When you’re on a run and one midshipman falls behind you, you go pick him up and run with him. All of these notions are designed to show that you are not bigger than the mission. Having personal accountability and leadership to go beyond your role to do what is necessary to accomplish something. It’s the willingness to sacrifice, even if it calls for your life. I carry that with me every single day.
What are some of your management techniques?
I always convey to my staff that I don’t just want a problem brought to me. Instead, I want a problem and your proposed solution. It’s easy to holler about a problem, but it’s hard to put together an answer. I really try to engage the staff in a constant stage of active problem-solving.
One of the most difficult things that I faced in the first few months of being an administrator was letting go of the part of my job that I was most comfortable with. It’s easy for me to pick up the phone and talk with a member of Congress on a specific issue, but I have to let my congressional affairs staff do that. You have to allow people the freedom to do their jobs. I believe in empowering the staff. They are the experts. Also, you should always be prepared to lay everything out on the line for a decision that you feel strongly about. If you put in that type of energy and focus, you are bound to succeed.
How do you connect with the employees at your agency?
I try to take the time to reach out and interact with the staff. It’s easy to have everyday dealings with the senior management core, but it’s the middle managers and staff that often get the work done. I made it my goal to visit all 10 of our regional offices during my time as administrator. I just finished with number nine and I’ll be visiting the last one in mid August. I have to interact with the people who are the functioning arm for NHTSA. They are our connections with state government and they do tremendous work.
What do you wish you would have known about the job before you started?
One part of the job that I did not expect is my role as the agency's spokesperson. I am the face of NHTSA. Having been a congressional staffer, I learned to stay away from the limelight. I definitely had to grow into it a bit.
If you weren’t at NHTSA, what job would you like?
I would love to teach, perhaps as a college professor in public policy and government because I think my experience might help prepare the next group of leaders and scholars in terms of how we can make American government better. Other than that, maybe if I cut myself in half I could become a Formula One race car driver. Unfortunately, I weigh well north of 125 pounds.
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