Image via VLADGRIN/

How I Lead: Getting Others to Sing Along at HHS

A Q&A with James Egbert, Human Resources Specialists at HHS.

James Egbert is a Human Resources Specialist in the United States Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). Positioned in the Office of the Secretary, Office of Human Resources, James helps to formulate and implement workforce programs and strategies to promote a positive, healthy, and innovative HHS workforce. Please feel free to contact James at

1. What is the best leadership lesson you've learned?

One leadership lesson that comes to mind is that leadership is often about doing something that seems like the right thing to do even though you are not sure at the time that others will follow. You know it to be leadership when others do follow you. For instance, I remember one time at the opening of a large conference the recording of the national anthem ran into technical difficulties and for a long minute of uncomfortable silence the thousands of attendees waited for the recording to start---and then one lone voice started singing---“Oh, say, can you see, by the dawn's early light,” and then others joined. By the end of the anthem, everyone in the hall was singing. All because a leader in the group took the first step and sang the opening line. Even though his voice was perhaps not the best ever heard, to me and so many in the hall that day, he was the leader for that moment. This lesson has always stayed with me.

Leading is starting something in such a way that others can easily join in and sing along.

2. How did you get to where you are today?

When I started my working career, I really did not have it in mind to work for the US Department of Health and Human Services. But now after nearly 10 years at HHS it seems to make so much sense to do so. While at first I thought a career was mainly about skills, I now realize that in my case it is more about values. For me, being able to serve others (the HHS mission is about helping those least able to help themselves) is really important and has guided so many of my career decisions.

I remember asking myself at various steps along my career, “If I was to take this position or make this career move, would I be better positioned to help more people or to serve in a way that would help more people?”

This one question guided many of my career transitions and I am now glad it did.

3. What leadership lessons do you try to convey to your team?

One lesson I convey to teams is that leadership is a capacity cultivated in individuals and teams. Given that many teams have a formal leader, the capacity for leadership starts with the setting of goals, alignment of talent, and the mustering of the will to accomplish the goals.

The formal leader demonstrates how communications are to flow in the team through his or her orientation and habits with regard to sense of self and service.

When leaders operate from an orientation that leadership is a capacity that resides in him orher (deemed by position), and directs the flow of communication to be primarily between the leader and members, the resulting capacity is the sum of individual effort.

When leaders operate from a belief that leadership is more a collective capacity that emerges from the thoughtful interchange of ideas, concerns, and aspirations among all members of the team—in relation to each other including the leader—then what emerges is a collective leadership capacity. Teams practicing collective emergence leadership discover that the conversation shifts from separate debates between leader/member to a dialogue held among the whole team. This emergence from the whole results in a more stable eco-centric representation of reality and one that brings with it the seeds for new growth, discovery, and opportunity.

Holding the space for dialogue of the nature and texture outlined above is the central leadership challenge in the 21st century. It starts with listening to our self, and others, about how we are called to serve.

4. What is a good book you've read recently?

There are so many great books on leadership and organizational performance. One that really sticks with me as a valuable insight into leadership and social transformation is the book  Theory U: Leading from the Future as it Emerges by Dr. C. Otto Scharmer of MIT.

This book helped me to refine many of my ideas about leadership, social and organizational change, and service. One of the main points that I took away from the book is that we know a lot about what leaders do and how they do it but we know very little about the inner place from which they operate. This source of our influence can be a blind spot to us.

Theory U offers insights, techniques, and a language of social transformation that helps us explore the inner dimension of leadership from our current self to our ideal self by developing a deeper state of listening that allow us as individuals and groups to begin to operate more from the whole rather than separate parts.

By attending to the situation with such a collective intention, we begin to operate with a heightened level of energy and sense of future possibility—one that begins to function as an intentional vehicle for an emerging future.

This body of work is worthy of review by anyone interested in taking a deeper look into the dynamics of individual and social transformation and performance.

5. What strengths do you bring your organization?

I have found that for many people it can take a while to realize their strengths—particularly in some work settings where we must combine multiple skills with multitasks all while operating in quickly changing contexts.

Further, I find there is a tendency to discount our strengths because they come easy to us and we make the assumption that they come easy to others. So in the end, that which is natural to us (like for some folks straightening a picture on the wall—some cannot help themselves from making this adjustment—perhaps due in part to a strength for order) is taken as a trait perhaps too broadly applied to others and not to ourselves.

For instance, it took me a long time to fully realize my natural tendency to look for the connections among various parts of a system. This connecting of the dots seemed like the proper thing to do and I had trouble early on in not understanding when others did not see the same or even a connection at all.  Now that I am better able to know my own strength in an area (such as systems thinking) I am better able to explain the connection I see and gain insights from others about how they do or do not see the connection. Often I am able to realize that I made a connection that really does not exist outside my own thinking and other times I gain insight into how to better illustrate the connection so others can help influence the system in ways called for in our human capital strategy.

6. What is your strategy for interactions with your supervisor?

My basic strategy in working with my supervisors over the years is to keep in mind three main points:

First, it is my job to report through my supervisor those things that a larger part of the organizational management structure needs to know about so they can respond appropriately. For instance, if there is a condition that exists that could escalate and disrupt our ability to meet our customer’s needs then I should share this information with my supervisor.

Second, I see my supervisor as someone often best positioned in the management structure who can help position my contributions and services to the organization. For example, I might ask my supervisor to inform higher levels of the organization about the rollout of a new product line or service that is offered from my program area.

Third, I see my supervisor as the person in the organization who can best help me with my own development and performance by allowing me the opportunity to openly explore vital work relationships, experiment in new processes, and learn from advances and mistakes.

All three of these strategies are important aspects of the employee/supervisor relationship; however there is one influencing element that really drives all of the above and that is the intention that is held in mind while performing the above. For me, that intention is to serve. Having a service orientation in performing all of these actions helps for the outcome to be collective, positive, and makes for the best chances of experiencing an enjoyable and rewarding work experience.

7. What career accomplishment are you most proud of and why?

Recently I was called upon to lead a departmental team formed to address an important HHS sustainability priority. A senior leader told that I was selected in large part because I have the ability to connect the dots and take a systems approach to my work—and this was a critical requirement for leading this particular team.

This appointment resonates as a significant career accomplishment for me in light of all the times in prior years that I struggled to explain a connection that I might have sensed at work. This appointment was not just a validation of past deeds, but one of identification of my strengths and an expression of belief the organization held about me in what I could do in the future.

I believe that having a sense of belonging is a strong need of mine and others. When we are validated by an individual or group that we also respect it is an outward expression that we belong, that we matter, and that we have purpose.

To lead is really to serve. I am proud to serve in this way and for such an important organizational priority.

8. How do you involve your employees to ensure everyone is on board with a new idea?

I have found that the best way to ensure everyone is on board with a new idea is to involve them in formulating the new idea as early as possible from the start of the idea.

To do this as both a leader and member of a group, I find it helpful to be clear upfront and during the project about the intention of the project. It helps to keep in mind that each person comes to the project with his or her own individual needs, views, and experiences as well. So taking time to ask about individual intentions is a good way to seek collective intention articulation.

It should be noted that this collective intention approach requires the leader to release some of the control about how things develop and trust that the group and process will best inform the outcome. Following clarifying  intentions, I find it helpful to use appreciative inquiry type questions (showing value of prior statements and asking follow up probing questions) to help focus attention in the here and now about what steps are right in front of us to take to benefit the project.

Leadership in this case can take the form of helping keep the energy up and the attention focused on continued advancement in achieving the intended outcome.

9. What is your latest goal or ambition and how do you plan to go about achieving it?

Much of the work I do at my department is focused on helping improve the performance of the workforce. My ambition is to help increase awareness of the necessary positive workforce conditions that best support optimal organizational, team, and individual performance.

One tool that helps identify, refine, and evaluate how we are doing in providing these performance support conditions is the annual Employee Viewpoint Survey (EVS) administered to all departmental employees. The EVS questions ask employees to what degree positive conditions exist in their work environment and the satisfaction they experience with these workforce conditions. When the results from the survey are tallied and shared with employees and leadership, a second level of inquiry (focus groups, spot surveys, interviews, etc.) takes place to try to uncover the factors and forces at play that best support and detract from mustering the best possible working conditions. We use the data from the survey and the information from the follow-up inquiries to support performance development programs and practices.

Our goal is to create a positive, healthy, and innovative work environment for all HHS employees.

10. What is the most important thing you have learned in your career?

One of the most important things I have learned in my career is that the best way to advance my career is to be of service in helping others advance their careers.

I have found long term career plans to be helpful in setting direction, but it is how I show up at work each day that has allowed me to gain respect and opportunities at work.

While some might subscribe to the scarcity principle (there are only so many perks or advancements and I need to rush in for mine before they are all gone).  I have, for the most part, to always subscribed to the abundance principle (there is an unlimited amount of opportunity, advancement, and reward if one is open to how it is provided).  My belief in the abundance principle has helped me to help others first, knowing that my reward will come in time.  I have learned that when I find myself at a low point, it is time for me to move out of my own ego-view, and work to be of service to others. This is sometimes a hard thing for me to do, but it seems to always work and lift my spirits of collaboration and service.  Mark Twain once said, “The best way to cheer yourself up is to try to cheer someone else up.”  I subscribe to this philosophy and have found much merit in it.

11. What was the biggest career risk you took? Did it turn out positively or negatively for you? What did you learn?

Soon after graduating from high school I joined the United States Air Force. It was a risk in that I did not know how it would turn out. While I had some uncles that served in WWII, I did not have any family that had served more recently.

Before I went to basic training I had a lot of people ask me if I was ready to be ordered around. They would sometimes add that they could never take all of those orders. To me, it had seemed that there were always those around me who were telling me what I needed to do, so that part did not concern me. I was excited about not knowing exactly what was to come, and at the same time scared about it.

So off I went to basic training (boot camp) not knowing what the future would hold, but somehow believing that it was the right thing for me at the time. What I found out was there were a lot of orders.  But, I soon discovered something about orders in the Air Force.  I found out that these orders were based on the principle of order. There was a reason for everything and most of the reasons made sense when viewed from the perspective of what was best for the Air Force and what was needed from me to be safe, healthy, and productive.  I soon found that I liked the order of the military.

What I learned from my 20 years in the Air Force is that many people really do like order too; and when you know the order of things, you can operate in that environment with a respect of those who give the orders—because most times orders are not really from the individual barking them—but from the principles upon which the collective good of self, code, and honor is based.

12. What motivates you?

Service to America. 

Image via VLADGRIN/