David Skorton became secretary of the Smithsonian Institution last July, overseeing 19 museums and galleries, 20 libraries, the National Zoo and numerous research centers. Educated as a cardiologist, Skorton previously served as president of the University of Iowa and Cornell University, and his interests seem as varied as the Smithsonian's offerings. He has had a longstanding interest in both science and the humanities, and in his spare time he plays the jazz flute and is an amateur beekeeper.
Skorton talked about his efforts to learn all he can about the Smithsonian, as well as his management and decision-making style, during an interview with Tom Fox. Fox is a guest writer for On Leadership and the vice president for leadership and innovation at the nonprofit, nonpartisan Partnership for Public Service. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Q. You have been on the job for less than a year. What have you learned about the Smithsonian? And was there anything in particular that came as a surprise?
A. The biggest surprise was how much scholarly activity and research goes on here—from art history and conservation to astrophysics. Some of this research is done quite independently. In other cases, it is done in partnership with very strong institutions elsewhere.
Q. What else has intrigued you about the Smithsonian?
A. One thing that is really fabulous, and that gets me out of bed to come to work, is that the Smithsonian is so open to the public. Even in an era of security concerns, with crowds everywhere, we keep these institutions open and free of charge. That openness, that accessibility of the organization, is a huge joy for me.
Q. What do you see as your primary role?
A. I must make sure that we’re serving the public interest and that we operate in the public trust. My number one job is communications, both internally and externally. Secondly, I manage and provide leadership. There is an old saw that managers do things right; leaders do the right thing. I think about that every time I come into work in the morning.
Q. How would you describe your leadership philosophy?
A. I am a big believer in so-called “servant leadership,” where I’m leading an institution that I am learning about day by day. The people who actually make it run every day—the scientists, the curators, the security officers, the facilities people and the professionals in myriad job descriptions—have a big effect on me. I try to listen to them and not think of myself as the person to whom everyone reports and for whom everyone works.
Q. How does that translate into the way you make decisions?
A. In leadership jobs dating back to 1985, I made top-down decisions only four times without input and agreement among my senior colleagues. It’s important to go as slow as possible without slowing down the whole process, and to honor the knowledge of the people who have been around longer and understand the institution.
Q. What do you do on an average day?
A. I spend much of my time now trying to understand the institution at a deeper level than I did when I was chosen for this job. I’m still going through a very steep learning curve. That learning curve involves meetings, traveling, seeing exhibitions and understanding what it means to conceive of, set up and maintain an exhibition. So a lot of my activities are still oriented toward climbing that mountain.
Q. Is there something in the Smithsonian collection that is one of your personal favorites?
A. Seeing Sandy Koufax’s baseball mitt meant a lot to me. I grew up in Los Angeles and we used to go watch Sandy Koufax pitch at Chavez Ravine for the Dodgers, and my dad liked that he was a left hander who could strike people out. So seeing his mitt was a big deal for me.
Q. Do you have anything on your desk that is of personal significance?
A. Besides a picture of my wife and son, I have a little bobble-head horse called Four Star Dave that is a souvenir from my two and a half years as chair of the board of the New York Racing Association—which gave me responsibility for the Aqueduct, Belmont and Saratoga race tracks.
I had never been to a thoroughbred race track before running those three tracks, so obviously I was the ideal candidate. Talk about a learning curve! It was another one of these reminders of humility. It was a leadership experience where I came into something really cold from the outside, learned a lot, and met a lot of fascinating and creative people.