Federal Coach: Admiral John Acton, director of DHS' Leader Development, on lessons from crises

(Fox's Federal Coach column was originally published on The Washington Post On Leadership site.)

John C. Acton , a retired United States Coast Guard rear admiral, serves as the executive director of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS)’s Leader Development, where he is building an integrated, department-wide program to enhance DHS’s leadership bench strength at all levels. Acton previously served as DHS’s director of operations coordination and planning where he dealt with events such as the Zazi NYC subway plot and responses to the Haiti earthquake and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

What advice can you offer federal leaders for motivating staff during a crisis?

Keep a level head. I've found that you can really get a glimpse of a person’s character when they’re under stress. During a crisis, if you can retain your passion for the mission and diffuse some of the raw emotion, that's helpful. Take a step back and do what you've been trained to do: engage, assess the situation, prioritize the actions needed, assign resources and then execute.

It's important to stay focused on the mission at hand. You want to be as efficient as possible, but in government it’s critical be effective. Key to effectiveness is building trust and credibility through transparency and collaboration. It’s dangerous to push a hidden agenda or predetermined outcome; as a leader you simply want to drive to the best solution for the American people.

Another thought is to lead by example. I know that's cliché, but it’s important. People will watch what you do more than they’ll listen to what you say. You've got to have the moral courage to do the right thing, even when it's difficult.

How has your Coast Guard training prepared you to lead effectively within a civilian agency?

The Coast Guard places a premium on leadership, which they begin developing on day one. One thing I heard in the Coast Guard, and have used since, is a speech given by Dr. Douglas Southall Freeman, who was the author of Lee's Lieutenants back in the 1940s. He viewed leadership into three elements: watch after your people; be a competent professional; and have honor (meaning, do the right things in the right way). I continue to use this perspective at DHS.

The Coast Guard has a very clear and well-defined set of core values that underlie their culture and guide their operations. After a 33-year career, they’re certainly part of me and what I've been doing at DHS. Everyone is encouraged to take initiative. They push initiative way down into the organization, which I think is a good thing. Leaders not only encourage initiative, but provide air cover for the staff when needed.

Another concept that the Coast Guard understands and I've found critical in responses, is the difference between a military concept of unity of command versus a civilian agency concept of unity of effort. Since the Coast Guard is “bilingual” (speaking both military and civilian agency), we're able to do both. At DHS, I've found the concept of unity of effort and being able to marshal organizations and resources to achieving a single effect is essential. That's what DHS does every day.

Does one particular crisis stand out as crystalizing those leadership elements?

I was commanding officer of a search-and-rescue patrol boat in Alaska as a young junior officer. Being in a job like that, with some life-and-death situations, gives you a unique perspective on what's really important and what isn't. That's something that I've carried with me through my entire career.

Another was the response to Katrina. As a flag officer, I was deployed down range as a Coast Guard liaison officer. I worked with the governors and their staffs from Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, as well as with the DOD. The Coast Guard had a heavy hand in Katrina, which for the service is a casebook study on how to turn around a difficult situation and get to a good resolution.

What is your vision for the department you lead at DHS and what obstacles have you faced?

My vision is an integrated program that provides a seamless continuum of leadership development opportunities for everybody, from day one until the day they leave the department. I would say the first big challenge was getting component buy-in. We've done that by having them actively participate in every step of the process through working groups, advisory board, etc.

The next big challenge I have in this budget environment is resources. I'm working to pull together funding from different organizations that have a common interest in making that happen.

Another challenge is to balance the need for departmental consistency with our components’ need for flexibility. Secret Service or TSA or FEMA may have some component-specific things they want train their supervisors to do. Both perspectives are important, and that’ll be an ongoing challenge.

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