Flooding from Hurricane Harvey covers a street in Houston.

Flooding from Hurricane Harvey covers a street in Houston. Gregory Bull/AP

Disaster Responses Brought Out Federal Agencies’ Best, Leaders Say

Senior executives hear how SBA and Homeland Security showcased leadership principles.

When she was first tapped to lead the Small Business Administration, Linda McMahon knew nothing of the key role that her agency plays in disaster responses, she told a crowd of senior executive award winners on Thursday.

But as she prepared for her confirmation and worked with associate administrator and SBA disaster response specialist James Rivera, McMahon learned that “the most daunting thing is helping disaster victims” because a new leader “is not given a honeymoon when there’s flooding and people are out of their homes,” she said at the first annual Presidential Rank Awards Leadership Summit, held at Washington’s Mayflower Hotel.

As the SBA, working this summer alongside the Federal Emergency Management Agency, scrambled to send staff to Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico to offer low-interest loans to hurricane victims, McMahon’s team was working off a plan that had already been gamed out. “What if we had three disasters in a row?” she recalled asking the team months before this year’s hurricanes. Officials had calculated how many people would be needed to staff call centers, travel to the sites and process loan applications based on past needs during 2005’s Hurricane Katrina and 2012’s Hurricane Sandy, she noted.

In 2017, “We were able to respond with $1 billion in loans in the first 45 days—less than half the time it took during Sandy,” McMahon said at the event for which the media sponsor was Government Executive Media Group. “Perhaps the best thing we did was” maintain transparency with Congress by reporting daily, rather than the usual monthly, to stay in touch on spending needs. When she traveled with President Trump to Houston and Puerto Rico, “it was incredibly heartwarming, and heart-tugging to see how leadership comes together,” she said.

McMahon, former head of the private-sector WWE, which stages pro-wrestling, gave leadership tips to the more than 150 agency award winners, saying, “Leadership is not simply checking a box and moving on-it must be exercised daily, like a muscle.”

Her approach is to set a vision, hire a team of “talented people smarter than you,” and communicate what is expected while holding people accountable. “You should exercise leadership even if no one is watching, because people are watching,” she added, citing the example of the time she startled her corporation’s employees by stopping herself to pick up trash.

“Never ever ask anyone to do anything you wouldn’t do yourself,” she advised. She likes to walk around SBA’s headquarters and pop unannounced into employees’ offices. “It scares the heck out of people,” but it is designed to show she cares.

Disaster response was also the theme of keynote remarks by Elaine Duke, the deputy Homeland Security Department secretary who acted in the top job for the past five months. Agency people “served with compassion” during the three hurricanes, she said, thanking the 2,800 federal volunteers from multiple agencies as well as “those who stayed back and did double duty.”

Duke personally connected with a Coast Guard swimmer who saved 500 flood victims in Texas and gave her the patch off of his uniform. “It was a humbling moment,” she said.  

Describing how she “fell in love with government service” at the start of her career as a GS-7, Duke scoffed at the way government employees are the “butt of jokes on late-night TV,” in politicians’ rhetoric and in idle conversation at parties about wasteful programs. “The phrase ‘good enough for government work’ was created in World War II and meant a product with the most high standards and that could withstand the greatest scrutiny,” Duke said. “Today’s workforce is good enough for government work.”

Yet leaders from the Senior Executive Service, which was intended to be “fungible,” she added, “too often get sidetracked into “the technical.” She pointed to language in the FedBizOpps procurement announcement site. “Our job is to be leaders,” she said, ticking off what the Office of Personnel Management has designated as the executive core qualifications: leading change, leading people, results driven, business acumen and building coalitions.

That last, “encircling,” qualification of being able to build coalitions, Duke added, depends less on technical skills than on what the children in her granddaughter’s kindergarten class see on a poster labeled “THINK.” That acronym encourages a focus, she said, on what is “true, helpful, inspiring, necessary and kind.”