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Government & Politics

SPA's Key Executive Alums Gather for Strength

By Adrienne Frank and Mike Unger

Photo: Elaine Kaplan a the Key Executive Program Leadership Conference

Elaine Kaplan, general counsel at the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, moderated a panel on ethics during the Key Executive Leadership Program's conference. Kaplan is an adjunct professor at SPA. (Photo: Bill Petros)

American University’s Key Leadership Program has been developing and training senior-level federal executives since 1975. On May 21, for the first time ever, the School of Public Affairs program brought its alumni and potential future students together for a leadership conference dubbed “"Extraordinary Leaders in Extraordinary Times!”

“The goal is to reinvigorate and reenergize Key graduates toward becoming extraordinary leaders,” said Robert Tobias, the program’s director. “All the people in this program are committed to becoming extraordinary leaders, but without moral support it’s hard. The idea of this conference was to get people together talking about the principles and foundations that work.”

Since its inception, the Key program has produced more than 800 graduates who now work throughout the federal government.

“The vision for the program is to challenge good managers to become extraordinary leaders,” Tobias said. “An extraordinary leader is one who chooses to work in collaboration, to change attitudes, to work with integrity, and asks others to do the same.”

AU President Neil Kerwin, himself a former Key professor, delivered the keynote address.

An expert in public policy and the regulatory process, Kerwin warned of “dark skies” ahead for civil servants. “I’ve been in Washington for nearly 40 years . . . and the challenges you confront today are the most daunting I’ve seen.”

The current fiscal crisis—at home and abroad—will require political courage and creative problem-solving, Kerwin said. Public servants must forge partnerships within the private sector, and “find new ways to bring the disenfranchised, the poor, and the poorly organized to the table so their voices are heard.”

“None of it’s going to be easy and none of it’s going to be pretty,” Kerwin continued. “It’s a troubling time, but it’s a time when the public service has never been more critical.”

The day featured a number of breakout sessions in which panelists, many of them Key faculty and alumni, discussed various aspects of leadership. In one, Michael Maccoby, an anthropologist and psychoanalyst, outlined how a personal leadership philosophy “informs, influences, and directs strategic thinking” within an organization.

“The most effective leaders can articulate a philosophy that’s inspiring and creates credibility and trust,” said the president of the Maccoby Group, a Washington-based leadership consulting firm. “The goal is to make people want to follow you, not follow you out of fear.”

Maccoby said a sound leadership philosophy reflects the individual’s purpose, values, and vision for the future, along with that of the organization.

Teresa Chambers, former chief of the United States Park Police Force, spoke during a panel on ethics. Now chief of police for the town of Riverdale Park, Md., Chambers recounted her controversial firing from the park police after the Washington Post quoted her in a story about the agency’s budget and staffing problems. Chambers challenged her dismissal, and 6½ years later, the case remains in court.

“I stepped into land mines that I didn’t even know were out there,” she said. “I would have rather told the truth and lost my job than to have lost my integrity.”