In The Washington Post on Friday, September 3, 2010, Aaron Williams was interviewed by the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service and The Washington Post’s On Leadership site jointly produce the Federal Coach, hosted by Tom Fox, director of the partnership’s Center for Government Leadership. The goal is to “engage, inspire and learn from you, the federal worker, whether you are a new hire, a contractor or a manager at the highest level.” Share your ideas and questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Humility, risk-taking make leaders great
Aaron S. Williams is the director of the Peace Corps and a former volunteer who served in the Dominican Republic. He previously served as the USAID mission director in South Africa, where he led a billion-dollar foreign assistance program when Nelson Mandela was president. Ranked five out of 34 small agencies, this was the first year that the Peace Corps participated in the Best Places to Work in the Federal Government rankings.
What leadership lessons did you learn during your tenure as a USAID mission director in South Africa?
Having the opportunity to serve in South Africa during the administration of Nelson Mandela was extraordinary. I think there are a couple of things about Nelson Mandela and what I learned there that were very important in terms of my leadership at the Peace Corps.
First, you have to have a vision for where you’re going as a leader, especially when you’re dealing with a complicated international environment. Secondly, it’s important to have humility in leadership. After all, the most important thing a leader can do is to engage with your employees to lead them in a direction to where they can obtain the best results. I think humility is an important part of that. The other is to select great team members and work constantly to build that team so that you can achieve those objectives.
What methods do you use to motivate your employees and volunteers?
One of the great advantages that we have is our staff and Peace Corps volunteers are highly motivated. They are people who are service-oriented and understand the importance of what Peace Corps does. So I try to capitalize and build on that platform. I listen very carefully. I also try to engage with them both in headquarters and in countries when I visit. I want to see what they’re doing, understand why they think this is important [and] make sure that they know that my team and I plan to be supportive. I encourage them to share their vision of how we can move forward and be adaptive and innovative.
How do you build a leadership team?
You have to identify the best possible people who are really stars in their own areas and who are great managers and leaders. I believe that you want to surround yourself with the smartest people possible and give them the opportunity to actually lead and support you in terms of moving the organization forward.
What advice do you have for young, emerging federal leaders?
Number One is to learn how to be a good follower before you can become a leader. Number Two, whatever the core competencies that you need to be effective in your business, try to learn those to the best of your ability. Be a risk taker. Raise your hand and volunteer. Take on a challenge, be the first one in and look for new, innovative ways to do things. And I think as a leader, those are the kinds of individuals that you want to have on your team.
During your career, when did you raise your hand and take a risk?
When I decided to join the Peace Corps, it was the biggest risk I’d ever taken in life. Most of the people who knew me and most of my family thought it was a big mistake. I was the first person to graduate from college in my family, and they said, “You know, this is a tremendous achievement, so settle down and have a normal career.” Thank God, my mother thought it was an excellent idea, and she supported me. The Peace Corps is a marvelous way for a young person to develop leadership skills at a very early age that will hold you in good stead for the rest of your life.
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