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6 Leadership Lessons From USAID

Of all the places I’ve worked in my life – and that includes the most demanding environments in the private sector – the United States Agency for International Development taught me how to be a leader.

When I started working there, I’d spent seven years as a communicator in a large, well-funded, “command and control” law enforcement hierarchy. We didn’t race to get things done; it was not unheard of to take several months to write an article.

USAID — located in the same building, oddly — was the polar opposite. Small, underfunded, constantly under siege, chaotic. Populated by government employees surrounded, supported and often challenged by an enormous swirling complicated web of partners.

You might think that such a tiny little place, with its tiny funding, would be more of a symbolic contributor to our Nation’s charitable values than anything else. Or, cynically, wonder out loud at their usefulness for PR. Perhaps even whether, as the Ben Affleck movie about the 1979-1981 Iran hostage crisis (Argo) speculated, the well-meaning “English teachers” are used as convenient spies.

All of that makes for an interesting conversation. But for me as a student of leadership, management and organizational development – it belongs at somebody else’s dinner party.

What matters is that USAID, more than any other place I’ve worked, was virtually a laboratory for effectively getting meaningful work done.

This isn’t to say that there were no problems. Of course there were. There was infighting and politics, like everywhere you go. Bureaucracy, because of course. Confusion, because you just had so many people getting so much done and not always talking to each other.

But there was a special unity there. I can only describe it as spiritual. Because when you make the difference in the life of a woman carrying water in a bucket for three hours just to survive, you are doing G-d’s work. And that is what people used to tell me – all the time.

When Ragaei Abdelfattah (may he rest in peace), one of our aid workers, was killed in a suicide bombing in Afghanistan, we gathered – all of us – in the lobby of our building to remember him. And I didn’t know him. My culture was different. My role in the organization was so far removed from his. In fact I’d never been in the field.

But that didn’t stop me from crying.

The others did not weep aloud, or at least they kept the tears to a minimum. Because at USAID the priority was to go on. Save as many as you can.

In fact, the risks were so obvious nobody dared to ever utter them out loud. (Or at least, not anywhere that I was in earshot.)

You may not work at USAID. And maybe you’re not exactly saving the world with your job. But you can copy elements of the formula. Not just because it will make your company or nonprofit more effective or productive. But because absent real meaning to the work that you do, the model is not actually sustainable over time.

The keys:

  1. A mission that is both meaningful and urgent – It doesn’t get much more basic than “eliminating extreme poverty.” You cannot work fast enough to do that. (You can think of this as your brand if the language is convenient.) I will never forget the amazing learning experience of working on their mission and values statement while I was there. 
  2. Small teams of empowered, highly competent employees – Being underfunded, there were never enough people to do the work and so USAID hired only “the best of the best” – and they knew how to work in small, highly focused and collaborative teams to make things happen. Maybe you have a large organization but more things happen when the team is divided up into small, self-sustaining, nimble cells.. 
  3. Total commitment on the part of the leader – The mission comes first, then the team, then the leader – not the leader first. But the role the leader plays is vital, and as they used to say at USAID, “the bar is very high.” Honestly, I regularly came home exhausted. But these were the kind of visionary people it is a privilege to work for. They regularly pumped us up – urged us forward – gave us a positive vision of the future that was so dazzling and yet seemed actually achievable, if only we would work hard enough and intelligently. 
  4. A passion for data – USAID is all about numbers. Collecting them, displaying them, explaining what they mean. Where people interpret concepts and narrative differently, they can rally around a few simple metrics that show how you are performing against a defined goal or objective. (But one has to be careful with this: I am not a proponent of making things sound like numeric achievements when they’re not – this destroys credibility.) 
  5. Excellence in communication – I did not work in Public Affairs, but I did work with them. The level of expertise in social media, multimedia, web and print communication was dazzling. Excellence in digital engagement, combined with a television show or mainstream movie (which I frequently urged them to do), is the #1 way in my view to explain to the public what you’re doing and why they should care. 
  6. Collaboration technology – This is critically important. Without it, nothing else works. Why? Frankly, there’s just too much happening. The deadlines are just too quick, the resources are too few and the knowledge is broadly dispersed among many busy people who can’t realistically assemble at any given point in time. Even if they could, it’s not necessarily true that they will share what they know. Or that they’d know where to find the old information that is easily searchable but outside one’s recall. 

These are a few of the “secret formula” lessons for organizational success I learned from my time at USAID. It is one of our nation’s premier federal agencies, and it sets a very high bar indeed.

If you want to save the world, “lead, follow or get out of the way.”


All opinions my own. Photo by USAID via Flickr (Creative Commons).


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