The Federal Coach: ‘I’m Like a Mayor of a Medium-Sized City’ An Interview with IRS Commissioner Douglas Shulman

As the commissioner of Internal Revenue, Douglas H. Shulman presides over the nation’s tax system, which collects approximately $2.4 trillion in tax revenue each year and processes 250 million returns every tax season. The IRS touches every facet of American society, including individual taxpayers, the tax-exempt sector, small businesses and large corporations. Shulman has experience in both the private and public sectors, and early in his career helped co-found Teach for America.

How do you surface ideas and problems at the IRS?

I learned early that how a leader reacts to problems determines whether people will surface them in the first place. I view my job to get the facts, create options for my team and, with my team, work through difficult issues and then give people support to fix the problems. The most important thing we can do is take the problem, fix the problem and learn a lesson from it. Now, of course, if problems continue in the same place from the same people, then you might have to address the people or the problem directly; but if you react badly, you’re not going to have the issue surfacing in the first place. There’s an old military saying that the only thing worse than bad news is bad news late.

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