I first came across Martha Johnson’s story in the Washington Post. I was incredibly intrigued, though not surprised, at the inner workings of the head of a large government organization, particularly how being its leader at the wrong time – even though she had nothing to do with why it was in journalist’s sights – was enough to put her through hell, and how she handled it like a pro.
The article focuses largely on her grueling experience “voluntarily” stepping down from the GAO, and how her exit compared to other high-profile resignations. It’s clear she was an easy target; a punching bag for lawmakers in need of new YouTube clips to prove to their constituents how they get tough on government waste. It drives clicks on the article, but her story and what she has to tell as an experienced leader is much more nuanced and interesting than the drama of beltway politics.
In, “On My Watch,” Johnson tells a non-nonsense story with some practical lessons that, on the surface, seem intuitive but cause you to reflect on whether or not you have ever really absorbed or practiced them. For example, she highlights that, “the work that leads a person to leadership, however, is not necessarily the work of leadership.” In short, what got you to the position is not what’s going to help you accomplish what you are there to do, and I can think of plenty of times where I did not put aside the old skill set in favor of learning the new one the job required.
There is plenty of other practical learning and some great stories over her stellar career. Her perspective can be off, in my opinion. While I agree good leaders facilitate strong knowledge/data management, setting a vision is more important. (Keep in mind I haven’t been asked to run a large government agency, so…) Definitely pick up this book if leadership is your thing. It’s great to learn from someone who has learned as much from difficulty as she has success. It’s also nice to see a female author in the leadership section of the bookstore. Not enough of those, I say.