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Don Jacobson, GovLoop Member of the Week

Greetings my fellow Govloopers!

Spring is almost here, for those in Washington D.C. that means cherry blossoms, great weather (at least until the summer) and the arrival of a new wave of tourists, reminding us of how lucky we are to live in this great city.

For this edition of Govloop Member of the Week, we are highlighting Don Jacobson, Consul General in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia and an engaging leader who sets the bar pretty high for the rest of us. His determination and commitment to leadership development is commendable. He is a true leader who takes action to fill the knowledge gap. Notable example: govleaders.org, a website he created as a free online resource “to help government managers cultivate a more effective and motivated public sector” . I met Don through GovLoop, have never actually met him in person, but he inspires me to be persistent, to look for ways in which I can help and develop others, while analyzing my own leadership style, recognizing my flaws and working on them as I grow in my career.

Don, thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts, for your dedication to public service and for the sacrifice you (and your family) make everyday to represent our country abroad.

1. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself? Anything you’d like to share about growing up?

I grew up in Santa Barbara, California. I was a very shy kid and spent most of my time reading books and trading baseball cards. I remember reading histories about inspiring leaders and thinking I would never be a leader because I am not charismatic. Fortunately, as I have learned, leadership has little to do with charisma.

2. Why did you decide to join the Foreign Service? How was that transition for you and your family?

I first learned about the Foreign Service when researching a history paper in high school. I thought it sounded like a fascinating and challenging way to serve our country. Also, it’s important to me to be learning all the time, so having a career path that allows me to change jobs—and even countries—every two or three years was (and still is) really appealing.

Overall, the Foreign Service has been a wonderful lifestyle for us. There is no doubt, however, that it is sometimes hard on families because of the need to pull up roots and make new friends so often. This year has been especially difficult for us because I am doing a one-year unaccompanied tour in Saudi Arabia. Children are not allowed at post because Riyadh is a critical threat post for terrorism, so my wife and three young kids (ages 11, 6 and 5) are in the US. We’re looking forward to our transfer this summer—as a family–to New Delhi.

3. What has been your most challenging assignment thus far? What about your most rewarding assignment?

In my view, challenges and rewards are inextricably linked. My best assignments have been those that involved “crucible” experiences–intense experiences rich in learning. For example, in Bogota we had a huge spike in workload and nowhere near the resources we needed to get the job done. We implemented some terrific innovations, but I also wound up burning out some of my officers. I learned a lot from that and have tried to take a much more balanced approach since then. At another post, I had some great opportunities to develop a stronger backbone. I terminated two employees and also had to protect my staff from a difficult senior boss. I used to avoid conflict as much as I could, but that is not helpful in a manager. Managers need to have a backbone in order to be effective—to speak truth to power, to protect their staff from abuse, and to deal with poor performance and unacceptable behavior. These things get easier with practice because, as I have found, difficult problems go away if you actually deal with them. I know that sounds obvious, but it’s a hard thing for a lot of managers to do. I’m pleased to report that it can be learned.

4. How do you define leadership?

Leadership is fundamentally about creating positive change. So in my view, leadership is the act of taking ownership of your work and trying to make things better—whether that be morale, efficiency, customer service, etc. This can be practiced at any level of the organization. For non-supervisors, people who do these things are change agents and dynamic followers. Supervisors lead by engaging their staff in the process of bringing about positive change. Unfortunately, a lot of people in positions of leadership never do take ownership of these issues and instead focus on their inbox. They are not leading; they are reacting.

5. Do you think that it takes a certain type of personality to be a leader?

Some personality types might be more naturally inclined to lead based on how they are wired, but anyone can learn to lead. At a fundamental level, leadership is a choice. Becoming a leader really requires two things: 1) making the choice to lead and 2) making a commitment to learn to do it well. As you go up the ranks, one of the most important things is to cultivate self-awareness. The higher you are in the organization, they greater the impact you will have—for better or worse. If you don’t understand how you are impacting people, you will stop learning—and stop leading.

6. Why is leadership so important to you?

The work of government is so important, we really need to get it right. We should also be able to love what we do. During my nearly 20 years of public service, I have seen a lot of efforts to make the government work better, such as Total Quality Management, Reinventing Government, and the President’s Management Agenda. Each of those efforts had many important successes, but the successes have usually been concentrated in the organizations (or pockets of organizations) that had effective leadership—where employees had a clear sense of mission and were encouraged to contribute their ideas.

Basically, effective leadership can help unleash the passion for service that most of us originally brought with us to government.

7. Can you tell us a little more about www.govleaders.org?

About nine years ago I was dealing with a number of really tough leadership challenges. I spent a fair bit of time trolling the internet looking for articles with insights that might help me lead more effectively. I found some great material, but it was like finding a needle in a haystack given the incredible volume of leadership literature that is out there. I found myself wishing that there was a clearinghouse of great leadership development material for government managers. So I decided to create one. I have had remarkable success getting permission to post copyrighted material that is not available elsewhere on the internet. I have also met a lot of incredible people along the way, including Ray Blunt (who writes a regular column for GovLeaders.org) and my colleagues in 13L

8. In the book “Inside a U.S. Embassy” you state that you believe that leadership and management practices that junior officers encounter early in their careers have a big impact on the kind of leaders and managers they become later in the careers; what was your first encounter with leadership and management practices?

Believe it or not, my first real lessons in leadership and management were as a McDonald’s shift manager in high school. I remember learning from a regional supervisor that the primary functions of a supervisor are to train and motivate. When people know their job and are excited about their work, things tend to go very well. When things don’t go well, you can usually trace it to problems with job knowledge/training or motivation.

My first boss in the Foreign Service did a couple really important things for me at the beginning of my tour. First, he gave me a full week of at-post training before I actually started doing visa interviews. By the time I started I really understood where I fit into the operation and was able to make an impact much more quickly. Second, in my work requirements he gave me a mandate to take a hard look at the entire operation and make recommendations for improvement. I had a blast with that. Once I became a supervisor (on my third tour, in Bogota), I made a point of giving my officers a week-long orientation and a mandate to innovate.

9. What kind of leader do you consider yourself to be?

As a leader, I always try to remember that nothing I do has a bigger impact than the example I set. I try to model integrity and to support the development of my staff by giving them training and challenging assignments. I also work hard to create a climate of candor. I want my staff to tell me about problems and to let me know when I am screwing up. It’s humbling sometimes, but humility is really important. It’s impossible to learn if you think you have all the answers. Leaders have to be learning all the time in order to keep growing, and regular doses of honest feedback can accelerate the process.

10. What advice would you give to new government employees who perhaps are surrounded by uninspiring managers?

There are bad bosses in any organization. But very few are truly evil. Some may be disengaged, and others may be subject matter experts who have not made the adjustment to a supervisory role. I think it’s safe to say that most managers really do mean well. If they are not effective, it could be that they have never focused on learning how to lead, have not decided to lead, or are simply oblivious to how they are impacting others. All of those scenarios can be helped by feedback. It’s important to establish a constructive relationship with your supervisor. If the boss respects your work and knows you are usually supportive, he/she will be much more likely to be receptive when you need to provide some constructive feedback. There is a terrific book on this subject, The Courageous Follower by Ira Chaleff, which I recommend highly.

My other suggestion is to make time to reflect on the experience of working for a bad boss. These can be stressful experiences that cause a lot of unhappiness. Some people react to bad bosses by becoming bitter and cynical. It may sound trite, but these kinds of painful experiences build character… or at least they do if you treat them as opportunities for growth. The choice between bitterness and personal growth is just that: a choice. Personally, I have always preferred growth.

11. What can they do to find good role models to help them develop their own leadership and management style?

They should keep an eye out for effective senior leaders and seek them out as mentors if possible. I think peers can be good role models as well. Look for out allies who also want to effect positive change and use each other as a sort of support network. Finally, finding stories of effective leadership can also be instructive and inspiring. Biographies of great leaders can be especially helpful.

12. What would you say is the biggest difference between working in the private sector versus the public sector?

Our processes for procurement, hiring, firing and budgeting all tend to be less flexible in government. And government agencies receive lots of scrutiny and oversight from the public, the media, NGOs, and Congress. Those are all constraints that make our work more difficult. However, I think the most important difference in government is that the mission of public service is inspiring. That is potentially a huge competitive advantage vis-á-vis the private sector, where even the most socially conscious firms still have to make their bottom line the top priority.

13. How did you hear about GovLoop and why did you decide to join?

Steve Ressler contacted me about it in July 2008 and invited me to contribute content about leadership. I signed up right away but didn’t become very active for several months because I was in the middle of transferring to Riyadh and settling in to my new assignment.

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Adriel Hampton

Don, Celia, thanks for this great interview. I especially like, “leadership is a choice.” Don, I also really appreciate your advice on using painful experiences for growth, instead of to fuel bitterness. I really try to live like that and encourage others to do so as well – that is also a choice. Thanks for your contributions here!

Thera Hearne

Don and Celia …Thank you both for this interview. I needed to see these answers. Right now, I am experiencing some challenging, stressful times. Despite what my environment is dishing out, I do not have to be bitter and frustrated. Deep down I know this, but seeing it in front of me in the interview answers and typing it here as reinforcement is what I needed. I am glad that I found GovLoop. Thanks again!

Andre Goodfriend

Thank you Don and Celia for this inspirational interview. Don has shown that a person can take the initiative to mentor colleagues and lead by example. Good ideas don’t become adopted by others on their own. It often takes a person willing to explain and be a human face. Don’s willingness to make the extra effort to make himself and his knowledge available whether in person, via his website or via social networking technologies has not made him “a force to be reckoned with” but a colleague to be turned to. I’m glad that govloop turned to him as its member of the week.


Some real gems in here – thanks Celia and Don. I’ve known Don for a few years now and really respect him for his knowledge and practice of leadership. And his approachability in terms of spreading the word and passing lessons learned to new leaders.

Emi Whittle

I love the part about “difficult problems go away if you actually deal with them…” There are indeed some things in life over which we have little personal control, and then we h o p e the people who do have more control, will actually deal with them… and many times, I have seen “leaders” fail in this, instead refusing to take any ownership or responsibility. Often, people like the idea of being a leader, or getting to be in charge, but when it comes time to step up, they step back instead while still trying to claim being the leader. If one does not actually reach out and grab the steering wheel, then one is really not driving….

Kenneth Watkins

This is a very good interview with a very inspirational person. I have only encountered Don through Govloop, but that simple interaction has left me with a very positive opinion of this man.

Don recommended “the Courageous Follower” to me and I agree, it is a very informative writing on leadership dynamics. I commended Don via Govloop for recommending the book, but I’d like to say that after reading this interview it is very clear that Donald Jacobson is a tribute to the profession of government service and a treasure to the country. Good job.

Don, keep up the great work and I look forward to speaking with again in the near future.

your friend, Ken
the Pragmatic Bohemian

Robert Domaingue

Some other things you might like to know about Don – he truly walks the talk! One of Don’s assignments in the State Department was as a Counseling and Development Officer responsible for mentoring and guiding junior officers scattered all over the world. He did such a fabulous job that he was nominated by all the officers he provided service to for an award. Don has received many awards in his career but I suspect the one from the junior officers has a special place in his heart. The State Department can be resistant to change at times (who would suspect such a thing!), but Don has continually supported grassroots leadership development and has made an impact on the organization. It is very inspiring to see how one person can make a difference.

Ray Blunt

I would tag Don with the highest compliment that is in my power to bestow and that is a public service leader. He is a leader who serves the American people and those who work with and for him. I “stumbled” across Don several years ago when doing some research and finding GovLeaders.org. Typically, there was no straight line to the founder, author and muse behind the site. I wrote to the Webmaster and found Don. I count him as a friend, example, and an inspiration for those I now work with after retiring 12 years ago–the next generation of servant leaders. Don is that and he is a beacon that I use to show practice–not simplyh theory. At the same time, he is, as he was as a boy apparently, a learner, a reader, and not one to hoard his wisdom. I hope I live long enough to see where Don winds up because if there is justice in this world, he is quietly and faithfully working to serve his way downward to a very visible and impactful place of service. Don embodies the paradox I believe is true–those who seek to serve, not be served, will become the true leaders.

Linda Caruso

Oh My! Truly an inspiring interview. I agree with much of what Don said and am very thankful for Govloop for posting this.

Wendy Vincent

Don was my CDO a few years back and he impressed me (and I don’t say this lightly); I was also part of the officer group that decided he merited an award for his leadership and efforts on our behalf–we did try to keep the nomination a secret, so not sure it was a surprise…. The point is that Don truly deserved this special recognition. And after reading this interview, it reminded me again of why he impressed me so–among our many similar philosophies, the one that stands out is that we both choose to parlay bad experiences and mistakes into personal growth opportunities.

Choice is a powerful tool, and is not always seen as “being there” for the taking–self awareness skills are needed. This morning, I had a meeting with several FSN supervisors and ACS chief on leadership/management situations and issues: we all agreed that self-awareness is one of several key attributes of a successful leader. What interested us during this meeting was that, for some of us, the lessons of a bad experience “uncovered” our latent self awareness skills. For example, before “Jane” became a supervisor, she experienced a situation in which she felt boxed in (by a bad boss) with no visible alternatives (choices) of escape and felt completely alone. Personal growth from this experience added self awareness skills to her toolbox and Jane now recognizes that, at the time, she couldn’t “see” the viable alternatives (choices) that she could have taken and that she was not really alone. As a supervisor, Jane’s staff benefits greatly from not only her desire to not have that situation be repeated, but also her self awareness of available choices, decisions’ implications, etc.

And yes, “difficult problems go away if you actually deal with them…” Choice….

Steve Richardson

Thanks for the wisdom, Don (and to Celia for the interview). My first management job was at Burger King – also in high school. I’m not sure I learned much from it, though!

Kathleen Goggin

Excellent interview Don – you keep inspiring us! I’m privileged to know you and honored to have worked with you.