U.S. government officials share a few of their favorite books on leadership

Deborah A.P. Hersman
Deborah A.P. Hersman (Sarah L. Voisin - The Washington Post)
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Tuesday, September 7, 2010

The nonprofit Partnership for Public Service and The Washington Post's On Leadership site jointly produce the Federal Coach, hosted by Tom Fox, director of the partnership's Center for Government Leadership. The goal is to "engage, inspire and learn from you, the federal worker, whether you are a new hire, a contractor or a manager at the highest level." Share your ideas and questions at fedcoach@ourpublicservice.org.

Favorite books on leadership

The Federal Coach asked federal leaders about their favorite books on leadership. Here's the list, with his own favorite included. What's your favorite leadership book? Please send your suggestions to fedcoach@ourpublicservice.org.

My top pick -- "The Cathedral Within" by Bill Shore -- continues to resonate with me. Shore uses the construction of cathedrals, including the National Cathedral, as a metaphor for the long-term view that those looking to make a difference must adopt. The idea is that the person who lays the foundation rarely gets to see the finished product, but they have started something spectacular.

Here is a broad and interesting selection of books from federal leaders:

National Transportation Safety Board Chairman Deborah A.P. Hersman said, "My favorite book is 'Oh, the Places You'll Go!' by Dr. Seuss. I think what Dr. Seuss reminds us is that the basic lessons about being a leader are listening to other people and listening to your heart. And in the end, those might be some of the most important things."

Patricia Adams, deputy assistant secretary of the Navy for civilian human resources, recommends "Partners in Command: George Marshall and Dwight Eisenhower in War and Peace" by Mark Perry. It's Eisenhower and Marshall writing to each other during World War II, with Marshall mentoring Eisenhower through the process. It's a great book, and it helps her understand more about the military, she said.

David L. McClure, associate administrator of the General Services Administration's Office of Citizen Services and Innovative Technologies, said: "One that I use repeatedly in conversations that I have with people, which is 'The Heart of Change' by John Kotter. I think in my area, the technology area, it's just so relevant. Because we tend to think about arguing for rational, process-driven solutions, whereas Kotter says, you've got to really get people to see and to feel the impact of what you're proposing to change -- an emotional touch to leadership."

Anh Duong, director of the borders and maritime security division in the Department of Homeland Security's Science and Technology Directorate, recommends "It's Okay to Be the Boss" by Bruce Tulgan. Duong says it advocates all leadership. High expectations inspire people to achieve, the book says, but at the same time, it stresses the willingness to apply what you call tough love at bad attitudes and underperformers.

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Director Alejandro Mayorkas said he draws the greatest motivation from biographies of Abraham Lincoln. Many people don't realize, Mayorkas said, that Lincoln's great accomplishments, what he is most remembered for, were achieved in the last six years of his life. It speaks to the power of each day and the power of making the most of each day.

Douglas B. Wilson, assistant secretary of defense for public affairs, likes "What it Takes: The Way to the White House" by Richard Ben Cramer. "It's the best book, I think, on political campaigns ever written." Another is "The Fourth Star: Four Generals and the Epic Struggle for the Future of the United States Army" by Greg Jaffe. "It's a book about four current generals who, I think, represent the new generation of Army leadership at a new time and in a new context of war. It's a really interesting examination of how each of these individuals not only represents this new framework, but helped to shape it," Wilson said.

U.S. General Services Administration Administrator Martha Johnson says the one that she has read over and over again is "All the King's Men" by Robert Penn Warren. Johnson says it's a beautifully written book that in the political scene teaches you how complex everybody is when they enter into these arenas of power.

Peace Corps Director Aaron S. Williams noted that Nelson Mandela's autobiography "Long Walk to Freedom" is an outstanding book, because it's one of these unique situations where someone who's in prison for a long time comes out with a positive view of what needs to be done in that society. He has a plan of action to carry it out and doesn't allow the past to be baggage that impedes his way to progress in the future, Williams said.

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