Federal Coach: Robert Reich on bringing tenacity to public leadership

Robert Reich is a professor at the Goldman School of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley and has served in three national administrations, most recently as secretary of labor under President Bill Clinton. Now, he shares his thoughts on public leadership.

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

Robert Reich is a professor at the Goldman School of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley. He has served in three national administrations, most recently as secretary of labor under President Bill Clinton. Under his leadership, the Department of Labor won more than 30 awards for innovation. He has written 12 books, numerous articles for national magazines and newspapers, and provided commentary for public radio.

What leadership lessons did you learn during your tenure as the secretary of labor?

There is a difference between leadership and formal authority. Many people have formal positions of authority, but do not exert leadership. A Cabinet officer has a lot of formal authority, but can only exert leadership indirectly, usually through working with Congress, other Cabinet officers, White House staff, and countless organizations in the private and non-profit sectors, as well as, of course, with career civil servants.

In your position, you were focused on policy and management responsibilities. How did you deal with the management issues?

I hired first-rate assistant secretaries and deputy assistant secretaries and located the very best and most experienced career professionals. Then I relied on all of them.

How did you identify the best career executives and how did you go about working with them?

I interviewed many people in the department to get their assessment of which career people were the very best. I made a few adjustments; but by and large, the top career people who were already in leadership positions proved to be exceptionally good. When they had major victories, we celebrated those victories. I also held meetings with almost all of the career people seeking their ideas — and when a good idea emerged at those meetings, I had the deputy secretary with me and on many occasions we decided to implement those ideas on the spot. We gave the career people visible, palpable proof that we were not only listening to them, but we were eager for their ideas.

Agencies are likely to undergo significant downsizing. What advice do you have for federal leaders given your experience in the 1990s?

We downsized considerably from 16,000 to 14,000 at the Department of Labor, but we did it without any layoffs. We did it primarily through attrition and some buy-outs. Lay-offs have a demoralizing effect on employees. Secondly, it’s important to give people an adequate understanding of the goals. I spent a lot of time, as did the deputy secretary, communicating with career employees about what we were doing and why we were doing it. Our budget was being cut. We had to do much more with less. That was something that the career employees participated in. They came up with many of the ideas. They were on the front lines. They were the ones that knew best where there is waste and where there are opportunities.

Do you encourage your students to consider government service?

College students are deeply committed to public service. The problem is that too many of them look at politics and at the federal government and recoil. I encourage them to enter politics and to think seriously about a career in the civil service. I try to explain to them how it’s possible to make a huge difference in this country with enough energy and tenacity. The biggest enemy we have right now is cynicism about government. I try to encourage them to get over their cynicism and understand that without an effective federal government, we can’t possibly have a good and just society.

Can you give examples you draw on to demonstrate what’s possible?

One simple example came in 1996 when many at the Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division thought it was important to increase the minimum wage. I took the evidence to the president and to Congress. In 1996, Republicans were in control of the House and the Senate. We were victorious. We raised the minimum wage, and 30 million people got a pay raise. I remember coming back to the Department of Labor and there were hundreds of career people who had worked so long on the issue who felt validated. Similarly, this happened with the Family Medical Leave Act. Many in the department had been working on it many years. We got it passed and, here again, people felt that their work was justified and that their work had a positive influence on people’s lives — and it has.

Looking back over your life, what has most influenced your work?

I do think back to my growing up. I was always very short for my age and always bullied by kids who were tougher and stronger and bigger. That led me to make alliances with other kids who would help me ward off the bullies. One of those kinder, older friends was named Michael Schwerner. In the summer of 1964, Michael was murdered along with two other civil rights workers for trying to register voters in Mississippi. I think that event more than anything else caused me to want to protect people with little power from being bullied by people with lots of it.

 

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