In 2007, Admiral Thad Allen had a feeling that something was changing in the workforce he led. There was something fundamentally different about the new generation of men and women in the Coast Guard. So Allen, who had become the 23rd Commandant a year earlier, did what nobody would expect a 36-year veteran to do — he embraced social media and started blogging.
“I was sensing a change with the advent of social media and how young people were aggregating [data] and producing behaviors without being in each other’s presence,” said Allen, who spoke to Breaking Gov contributor Dan Verton at his new Booz Allen Hamilton office in McLean, Va., last week about a variety of management topics, including the importance of “meta-leadership” in government.
“So I started a Facebook account. I started blogging as the Commandant of the Coast Guard. I started Tweeting. And I put all my pictures on Flickr. I figured if I didn’t go out and immerse myself in that environment I couldn’t understand it, nor could I make good policy decisions.”
Allen quickly had to confront a variety of policy questions surrounding the new technology, including whether or not to allow members of the Coast Guard to use these tools at the workplace, the legal implications of allowing such activity on government computers and networks, and of course the security concerns that surround social information sharing and its impact on operations.
Within a year, Allen issued the Coast Guard’s first social media initiative, titled “Social Media: The Way Ahead.”
In a video Allen released, he described emerging social media tools and technologies as “a permanent feature of our environment” and added that “it is critically important that senior leaders in the United States Coast Guard understand what technology is doing today, how it is changing and how we must change with it.”
Meta-leadership teaches you how to manage large, complex, anomalous events. It’s about how you work across government and large complex organizations to create unity of effort.” – Admiral Thad Allen
Importance of Constant Learning
Thad Allen graduated from the Coast Guard Academy in 1971 and devoted the next 39 years of his life to the Coast Guard. Just as he was retiring last April, he was thrust unexpectedly into the high-profile role as national incident commander overseeing the federal government’s response to the Deep Water Horizon oil spill disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.
The national exposure not only earned him wide public respect. It also revealed an honest and pragmatic leadership style that is not uncommon across government, but not often seen by the American public.
“In the current political climate and discourse over the national debt, we have done a poor job of distinguishing between the need for fiscal responsibility and the value of public service, which is enduring,” he wrote in a recent commentary article published on Breaking Gov.
For Allen, who also now teaches a course at The George Washington University in Washington, D.C., titled “Leadership in Complex Organizations,” the constant learning process that he went through during his time as the most senior officer in the Coast Guard is the same process that federal agency leaders and managers across government must now embrace, he said.
Given the changing demographics of the federal workforce and the technological expectations of these younger workers, the ability to learn quickly and embrace change is critical to leadership in today’s federal environment, he said. That’s being exacerbated now by the fact that the federal workforce is shrinking.
“There’s so much data that’s extant in the federal government right now that if used properly with analytics, we could exploit for pattern recognition and make much smarter decisions much more quickly,” said Allen. “But it’s hard to make those decisions if you don’t know the basis of cloud computation or virtualization.”
Allen acknowledges that there are still many in the federal government that are what he terms “Internet introverts” who are not open to the idea of embracing these new forms of communicating and information sharing.
As an example, he recalled a meeting he held with senior leaders of a particular agency, during which he was trying to explain the importance of agency leaders taking the time to get first-hand experience in the new technology world that their employees are using every day. He recalled getting mixed results.
“I finally just said, listen, by the time we meet next time I would like all of you to go home and establish an iGoogle account. Look at the widgets and how you put it all together. You don’t have to keep it forever, but just go home and do that for a week,” Allen recalls telling the group.
And the result?
“The light bulbs went on in some folks and didn’t go on in others,” recalled Allen. “I don’t know how you do this unless you actually get in there and do it or handcuff yourself to a 14-year old.
The New Leadership Imperative
There’s little doubt that the federal workforce is changing. However, the age and tech-savvy skills of the incoming pool of workers are but one part of that change.
Budgets are being slashed and face a highly uncertain future given the inability of Congress to act on deficit reduction. And this is happening amid record layoffs in the federal government.
A study released Nov. 30 by global outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas Inc., showed that cuts in federal agency jobs led the nation to a record number of layoffs in 2011 compared to last year. The 180,881 layoffs announced by agencies this year amounted to 30% more than the same period last year.
These changes raise serious questions about the ability of government to function effectively. For Allen, it means learning leaders are at an even higher premium.
“It starts with leaders that understand the technology so they can make policy and budget choices that brings that technology into government and enables better performance,” he said.
“I think one of the significant problems we have right now is the [in]ability of some senior leaders to understand the technology,” Allen said. “If you don’t understand the technology or the infrastructure below virtualization and cloud computing, or things like map reduce where you can take very extensive problems and send them out for computation, bring it back together and add analytics to solve a tough problem, it’s hard for you to make a policy choice or a budgetary choice that makes [these capabilities] a priority for investment.”
Meta-leadership is a framework for creating a shared course of action and commonality of purpose across different organizational boundaries. It has become a particularly important concept for federal agencies, which often find themselves at the forefront of major crises that require dozens of government bureaucracies to act in unison.
Allen said teaching federal managers how to be meta-leaders is critical to leadership development in government.
Meta-leadership teaches you how to “manage large, complex, anomalous events,” said Allen. “It’s [about] how you work across government and large complex organizations to create unity of effort…and how you understand the event and inspire the people around you to create what the public would expect as a whole of government response. That is a real premium in my view on leadership development these days.”
Allen has concluded that great leaders are great learners. And refreshing one’s technological competence is critical to successful leadership in government.
But given the reluctance of some who have risen to senior leadership positions to embrace new technologies, is there a disconnect brewing between agency leadership and the new, young, smart talent government is so desperate to recruit?
“There’s only a disconnect if managers don’t understand that they have to keep learning their entire lives,” said Allen.
“It’s incumbent on senior managers and leaders to be lifelong learners and to understand the technology and how it is being employed by the people who are coming in to work for us and how they aggregate and produce social behaviors,” he said.
“People don’t meet at lodges anymore. They meet and gather in a much different way. It’s not good or bad, it’s just different. It’s the sociological equivalent of climate change.”