By Demi Davis and Simone Serat.
Martha Johnson served as Administrator of the General Services Administration (GSA) from 2010 to 2012, when she resigned amid a scandal over subordinates’ questionable spending on a training conference. She is now a writer, blogger, leadership coach, and highly sought-after speaker on leadership, risk taking, and resilience. Her book about her experience as GSA administrator, On My Watch: Leadership, Innovation, and Personal Resilience, is a national bestseller.
Experienced in both the public and private sector, Johnson exemplifies what it means to be a public servant. She is a pragmatic leader who understands how it is “really hard to a make a culture change by just passing a law.” Her grasp of reality contributed to her ability to serve as the Administrator of the GSA. Johnson, through her experience and wisdom, teaches us to always remember that being a leader means being authentic, energetic, and driven. These characteristics, along with an understanding of how the government works, can be valuable to many who are considering careers in public service.
DPR: What can we do to inspire more young people to serve in government?
Johnson: I think the very first thing is to make sure the story of the government is told better. I don’t think people understand the tremendously interesting and important work that is done in government. People don’t appreciate—I don’t, and I didn’t until I was in government—even begin to understand the really fabulous problems that government people have to attack and get into. To sit at a place like GSA and wrestle with how to make the government a zero-footprint organization—what bigger problem is there? …So it is the fundamental challenge of the work… how work brings us together to focus on the kind of problem-solving that allows us all to learn and to benefit society… I think another [step] is, obviously, to teach and expose people to these kinds of subjects in school and through the media. But fundamentally, however it’s done, [we need to] tell a really interesting story of government and how cool the work is.
DPR: What characteristics of yourself did you find beneficial when dealing with a scandal and what characteristics would have been helpful that you do not possess?
Johnson: During the scandal, beneficial characteristics were my personal network and relationships with colleagues. I’m a community person and relationship person. That’s a very feminine approach to work. The male approach is more about rules in an abstract sense. I think my interest in cultivating relationships was very important during the scandal. Also, I deeply understand the difference between shame and guilt. Guilt is when something was done wrong that needs to be fixed. You made a mistake and you need to fix it. Shame is when you are wrong, you are bad. When people are being shamed, it’s a devastating thing. I understood the difference, and I knew when I was in the position when Congress was trying to shame me. It’s very important to know that they are deeply confused; they are using shame instead of recognizing the issue of guilt and the processes that can fix problems instead of smearing people and organizations.
Before the scandal, I would have liked to have more political savvy. I didn’t come into government from a political background. I never worked on a campaign. I didn’t have deep ties inside the White House. I was an unusual political appointee in that way. They were hiring me more for my management chops and my experience, which was unusual because President Obama and his team seemed to recognize that GSA is quite valuable. Other presidents have made much more cynical appointments to that position. It’s a very political appointment because there isn’t a deep respect for what it can do. Somehow the Obama team figured that out.
DPR: What is one thing–or multiple things–that you wish someone had told you when you accepted the position as the GSA Administrator?
Johnson: It’s a hard question because—and this goes to the resilience of how you come out a scandal—but I am pretty careful not to sit in the shame of the past, for the reasons I said earlier, so I don’t relive my life saying “oh, shoulda coulda woulda.” You just can’t go there. You do need to learn from your mistakes, and I get that, but you don’t need to be dissecting yourself and beating yourself up… The bit that I would have liked to know is how fast I needed to have moved. When you’re coming in at the beginning of an administration, you feel like you have four years, maybe even eight, and I was committed that way. But you have no time, you just have no time. You have to move so quickly and you have to be very careful with what you choose. I did not have that imperative of time in quite the way that maybe I would have if I had been somebody else.
And one other thing—although I knew this, but I think anybody does coming in—is that you don’t get to choose the people around you entirely and so you have to work with the staff you get. And that’s always a challenge. You get a few, but you don’t get all of them. I was coming in at such a right angle with such different views in terms of what industry could teach us and how to be a strategic leader and the people around me were more traditional lawyers. They weren’t management people, and that made a difference.