Allison M. Macfarlane became chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) roughly a year ago, replacing former chairman Gregory Jaczko. Macfarlane, a geologist and former associate professor of environmental science and policy at George Mason University, spoke with Tom Fox, a guest writer for On Leadership. Fox is vice president for leadership and innovation at the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service and also heads up their Center for Government Leadership.

Q. How would you describe your leadership style?

Photo Credit: Eliot Brenner/NRC Photo Credit: Eliot Brenner/NRC

A. There are a number of definitions of leadership that get thrown around at the NRC, but I come from an academic background so I’ve developed a very inclusive, collegial style of leadership. I’m not hierarchical and I expect the folks who are supposedly below me to be more of my equals. I expect to have a back and forth with them, where I respect what they say and they respect what I say. I think that creating that kind of respect and openness makes employees feel better and then work better. Giving your colleagues the respect that’s due to them also means that you meet with them frequently and you understand their views, but that you ultimately make your own decisions.

What are your top goals as NRC chairman?

The main goal and mission of the NRC is to ensure the safety and security of existing nuclear reactors and nuclear facilities. Another goal is continuing to implement the lessons learned from the Fukushima nuclear plant accident in Japan. I also would like to improve communications here at the NRC both internally and externally, with the public and with our licensees. I also think it’s very important to strengthen our relationships with our international counterparts since, as Fukushima showed us, safety is a global issue. Finally, I would like to increase diversity among the management at NRC.

What are some of your top management challenges?

We recently selected a new director of operations at the agency. That was a time-consuming issue that the commission and I took very seriously. We also have a number of people who will be retiring soon who have a lot of knowledge of the agency, so making sure that their knowledge is passed on is another challenge for us. We do have a knowledge management plan where we are actively working on that issue. We try to bring new people in, train them, pair them with mentors and give them exposure to a lot of different areas in the agency. That’s one thing that’s impressed me about the NRC. We do a great job of rotating staff to different parts of the agency so that people have a really good understanding of the entire organization, how it works and how its components work together.

Is there anything you wish you had known coming into the NRC? What would you like the American public to know about the work of the commission?

I wish I had understood a little bit more about all the agency does, because it does an awful lot. It not only ensures that commercial reactors operate safely, but also that research and test reactors operate safely as well and that all the tens of thousands of nuclear material licensees operate safely. We have quite a big job, and it’s an important job. But we share this job among the five commissioners – each has an equal vote, so being chairman is more like being head of the Supreme Court.

One thing that I’d like the American public to know that I didn’t know before I came to the NRC is that each nuclear reactor has at least two resident inspectors who are on site at all times. I think that will make everyone rest a little easier to know that there’s always someone there.

What advice would you give aspiring leaders or new employees who are looking to make an impact in government?

Get as much experience as possible. Be as broad as possible, be open minded, talk to different kinds of people and really listen to them. Read widely, read the newspaper on a daily basis and stay informed. As a professor, I can tell you that the vast majority of undergraduate students I’ve taught do not keep up with the news. In order to become a leader, you need to know what’s happening in the world.

Read also:

The NASA approach to keeping employees engaged

Talking leadership with the Patent and Trademark Office’s Teresa Stanek Rea

Like On Leadership? Follow us on Facebook and Twitter.