What’s your why?

Senior Correspondent Mike Causey is on vacation. This is one of a series of guest columns written by Federal Report readers.

There is a fairly common conference theme where a speaker asks what your “why” is. The idea is that if you know why you are doing something, you are likely going to be more successful at it. The purpose of asking the question is to motivate someone to dig a little deeper into an aspect of their life. One could apply “the why question” to their personal life, career, or really any goal.

Robert Griffin III just posted on Twitter a couple days ago asking people to “know your why”.

If you are one of the three people who don’t know who RGIII is, he is the quarterback for the Washington Redskins, and one of the most famous faces currently playing in the NFL. He is an intelligent young man who has an infectious smile, a solid work ethic and loves social media attention. He seems to be an eternal optimist who is the first to comfort a teammate after they really screw the pooch.


He is basically Mary Poppins in an NFL uniform sans the umbrella. I am not. I am a 40-something married man with lots of kids and a grueling federal career. I cannot comprehend his puppy-like bliss. but then again, I was never guaranteed $21 million when I was 24 years old. I suppose if he wants to wag his tail and encourage the world to “know your why”, then there is nothing wrong with that. Although his new mantra is nothing new, it does raise a good question.

I am not a motivational speaker, or even someone who feels any sort of midlife- crisis-like need to suddenly figure out my “why.” However, I am a federal manager who is in the trenches every single day, and I feel the why question has a distinct place inside the fed world. There are days where I struggle with my employees, my division’s budget or the fact that I could be making a lot more money somewhere else. I have to ask myself quite often, “Why am I here?” As someone who has rubbed shoulders with some very well-known federal leaders, I write this as both a rebuke to some and an encouragement to others.

The reasons managers come to work are very different — the “why” doesn’t match. There are some that just want a paycheck, a corner office with a free internet connection; and they have zero intention of producing or leading anything. In my opinion, these people have no “why.” They are a rudderless ship, yet they have been tasked with leading a group, division or agency mission. They are more caught up in how they appear on paper and how they can build their kingdom. In my experience, they feel insulated enough that they fear no disciplinary action. These people are often lifetime bureaucrats who have learned to play the game. They keep their head down, try not to be noticed and their years turn into decades.

Did you know that in the 1800s (and arguably today too), the office of the Vice President of the United States was often where political leaders from the various states would try to push their “problem people?” For example, if someone was a nuisance or inept at their job, a great solution was to “promote” them into the vice presidency. I call this failing upwards. These are people that rose through the organizational chart not because of their skill or uncanny leadership prowess, but because they had a boss who was sick of them, so they encouraged them to move up (and out). It is the federal way — shift them up, give them a great going-away party, everyone offers the fake smile and handshake, and then they all breathe a sigh of relief that the era of incompetence has ended — for now. The person often moves on to some bigger position, where he or she can screw up even more visibly. It happens all the time. Failing upwards.

There is another type of manager though who has embraced the “why.” This manager knows his agency’s mission, seeks to help others and reach across the chasm of politics to simply leave a place better than when he or she started. There are some brilliant minds within the federal system who keep a positive outlook regardless of public scrutiny or the failure of Congress to pay them even a simple cost-of-living salary increase. These men and woman I have found at all management levels. They have often sacrificed a very lucrative private-sector salary to stay with the fed and make a difference. I seek these people. I long for these people to come across my path. We share the same “why.” These people challenge the why in other people, and they are not deterred by bureaucracy.

The dichotomy between these two types of federal managers is obvious. There are some that act as if a management position within a federal agency is like a college scholarship — once you have it, you can coast the rest of the way. There are others that see a management role as their chance to make a difference. To make that difference is painful. It sometimes means upsetting a network of fed cronies who have spent their careers watching out for one another. It can sometimes lead to retaliation or an EEOC complaint against you. I was once told by a federal CIO that any federal manager who is doing their job well should have at least a couple EEOC complaints against them. That was years ago, and she was right.

Oh, the stories I could tell. I am one of those difference makers. It is not a torch I carry or a letter a boldly wear on my chest but more like a burden to do what is right despite the criticism I may experience. I encourage all federal managers to excel and grow. I have seen a shift even in my agency where excellence, hard work, and team building are growing themes; all it takes is one person who is willing to make a difference. Collaborate, organize, produce and lead! Know your why. — David C.


The 2000 Disney Channel TV movie, Alley Cats Strike boasts the longest movie plot summary on Wikipedia. The plot summary for the movie about a group of rival high school bowling teams clocks in at more than 4,266 words. In contrast, the synopses for Saving Private Ryan, The Godfather and Schindler’s List all contain fewer than 800 words.

(Source: Slate)


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