Honorable Deborah Hersman, NTSB Board Member

Chairman Deborah A.P. Hersman
National Transportation Safety Board
Harold Gortner Lecture
George Mason University
Fairfax, Virginia
March 31, 2014
"From Pawn to Queen: What Chess Can
Teach Us About Leadership"


Thank you, for that gracious introduction. And, I want to thank President Cabrera for welcoming me back to campus and George Mason University for inviting me to deliver the annual Harold Gortner lecture.

It is so neat to be here because, when I was getting my Masters in Conflict Analysis and Resolution, I chose to take my electives in public policy. Two of my favorite classes/seminars were taught by Professor Mark Abramson and focused on leadership and change.

I had originally thought about discussing the logic of preventing unlikely, high-consequence risk. But I thought you would rather hear real-life tips about leadership and change management from my tenure at the National Transportation Safety Board.

First let me tell you what the NTSB is, for those who don't know.

The NTSB is the independent agency that investigates transportation accidents. We determine the cause of accidents and make recommendations for safety improvements. We're independent and aren't required to consider competing priorities like labor relations, politics or cost.

There are five Board Members at the NTSB, appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate. And, one of those five serves as the Chairman.

And, that's me, for about 25 more days.

So today, let me give you an insider glimpse into why independence is so important to NTSB. In 2004, my first accident as an NTSB Board Member was a Metro crash at Woodley Park. An out-of-service train had rolled back into the station, causing the last car of the unoccupied train to collide with the standing train. Fortunately, nobody was in that last car, because it telescoped into the other train. After that accident, the NTSB recommended that Metro phase out or retrofit its 1000-series cars, the least crashworthy cars on their system, which dated back to the 1970s.

Metro said they couldn't afford to get rid of or modify 300 cars, or about one-third of their fleet. We closed the recommendation as unacceptable several years later.

In 2009, just after I was nominated as Chairman, I was at the site of a collision near Fort Totten in which nine people were killed and more than 50 hospitalized. The accident involved the 1000-series cars telescoping again. Within 24 hours, I briefed the media on the lack of crashworthiness of the cars, and on that recommendation we had issued years before. The Washington Post said that I had "come out swinging."

The investigation drew the spotlight, and the spotlight can be uncomfortable for the affected operators, manufacturers and regulators.

And in a House hearing on the crash, DC's delegate was livid, she demanded to know how the NTSB could possibly recommend replacing those cars at the cost of approximately $870 million. She said we knew that Metro didn't have the money, and neither did Congress.

I told her what I just told you earlier: we're the conscience and the compass of transportation. I recognized her frustration, but explained we don't worry about the cost. We worry about safety.

Nine people lost their lives in that crash – people on their way to or from work, class, or shopping.

That's why the NTSB is independent – so that there's an advocate purely for the interest of the traveling public. Not for an airline or a transit system or a regulatory agency. For the traveling public.

Does anybody here take Metro? Now keep your hand up if you think it's a good idea that there's an agency that worries about your safety.

Well, thanks. You can lower your hands.

I think that when Congress made the NTSB independent, government got it right.

But regardless of how good your mission is, there are still special challenges for political appointees like me who head federal agencies.

And if you want an insider glimpse of how that works, you'll have to follow me, and Lewis Carroll, "Through the Looking Glass."

In that book, we meet Carroll's character The Red Queen, a chess piece come to life, who tells Alice,

"Now here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!"

If you want to get somewhere else, you must run twice as fast.

There's a Red Queen Hypothesis in biology, and I have a Red Queen Hypothesis about leading a federal agency: It can take an enormous amount of energy just to get past resistance to change. You need a whole reserve tank to pursue change once people accept it.

And you've got to do it in a short period of time, because political appointees generally serve short terms.

Any CEO has the same problem. The length of service for the average private-sector CEO is 2 to 3 years. But there are some differences.

First, private-sector CEOs are judged by stock values, profits and tangible results. Second, those CEOs generally get to pick their team – they can hire and fire.

And third, private-sector CEOs often come from inside the company they're running. Political appointees rarely come from within the agency they're hired to run and don't always have the expertise in the sector they're involved in.

Lewis Carroll may have been thinking of political appointees when he dreamed up the Red Queen – running as fast as you can to stay in one place. Think about it, at least 6 months to be confirmed, one year to learn the agency on the front end, and you're a lame duck for the last year of the Administration because everyone knows you're leaving. How much time does that leave to get anything done?

That's the Red Queen challenge. So let's look at the rest of the pieces on the chess board, or the groups of people you find in federal agencies:

Political appointees like me lead agencies and set the agenda.

There's a halo of their staff who may act as extensions of the agency head. For me at the NTSB, that is a small number – two political appointees function more as a hair clip than a halo. But their fates are tied to mine – a tremendous commitment.

Then you get into the "real agency." You have Senior Executive Service, the top of the career ladder.  They know how the agency does its work, and if you do it a new way, that it might not work.

You have a cadre of experts, who have forgotten more about the agency's subject matter than you'll ever learn. They see the agency through their facts. If you are using those facts in a new way, they might think you are jeopardizing the agency.

And then there are career generalists who want their day-to-day to make sense and want their talents to be used.

Every one of these career groups has its functions and characteristics, but they all have one thing in common – they'll be here when you leave.

That has enormous implications if you have a change agenda. If I heard it once, I heard it a hundred times: "They'll just wait you out."

People can be socialized to resist change. They see themselves at risk of losing what they've already gained – status, expertise, security

So as the queen, how did I make sure we got somewhere, instead of using all my energy to stay in one place?  Well, part of the answer is that I didn't look at the board entirely as the queen, because I started out as a pawn.

I got my Master's from Mason while working on the staff of Congressman Bob Wise of West Virginia. I started as a summer intern and worked my way up to Staff Director and Senior Legislative Aide for a great boss who happened to be the ranking member of the rail subcommittee.

Along the way I worked with Congressman Wise on our response to some rail accidents – coal train derailments in West Virginia in his district, and an Amtrak/MARC passenger train collision that took place in Silver Springm killing several young adults coming from a Job Corps site in Harper's Ferry, West Virginia.

Some of these students survived the impact, only to be trapped in the burning train. Responders could not get in to evacuate them.

The witness accounts of the horror resulted in legislation and new regulations regarding emergency egress and access for passenger rail. Those events, almost two decades ago, were my first interactions with the NTSB.

Fast-forward to 1999 – all of that helped me get my next job as a senior advisor on the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee.

Five years later, I was appointed as a Member of the National Transportation Safety Board by President Bush, and five more years later, in 2009, I was appointed Chairman by President Obama.

So lesson #1:  take heart if you're starting out as a pawn. Pawns do become queens. And, starting as a pawn, you understand organizations from the ground up – a major advantage.

I had some other advantages a lot of political appointees don't have. Having spent a dozen years as a congressional staffer, I was familiar with transportation safety, the laws governing it, how Washington works, and the NTSB's oversight committees. Then I got 5 years' experience as a Member of the NTSB before I became the Chairman.  So I wasn't from outside the agency or the industry.

One other advantage I had was that the NTSB has only 400 employees throughout the country, with about 200 working in Washington.  Social scientists say that you can really know 150 people – So I could know most everybody at the NTSB.

And finally I knew what I was getting into.  I had a view of the whole board, and I still had my "pawn vision."

Tip #2: anybody can keep some pawn vision, as long as you see people as equal in their humanity, whichever skills they bring to the table and however much power they have.

Today, a lot of people acknowledge me, after all I am Chairman of the NTSB.  But some very smart people acknowledged me when I sat at the front reception desk for Congressman Wise.  And not smart because I did well afterwards.  Smart because they saw that I was somebody then, too.

But those so-called pawns are also the people who keep the queen alive: Keeping her schedule. Screening out suspicious packages in the mail. Staying until midnight so the lights are right for the next event. The list goes on.

So Tip #3: Everybody shows respect to an agency head. Be sharper than that. Respect so-called "pawns." Not just because they turn into queens, but because they create every opportunity on the board.

Speaking of chess pieces, my oldest son really enjoys chess and I keep trying to get him to see "Searching for Bobby Fisher" with me. It's about a prodigy named Josh who goes all the way to the big championship game and how he keeps his decency even while playing cutthroat chess.

In the movie, his father hires a chess tutor played by Ben Kingsley, but Josh also wanders into the world of speed chess in Washington Square, where he meets a chess hustler played by Laurence Fishburne.

In the big championship game there's this scene where the teacher and the hustler are watching Josh play and they're rooting for him behind soundproof glass.

They see him thinking about moving his queen out early, which is really risky.

Ben Kingsley says "Don't do it Josh. Don't even think about it."

Laurence Fishburne says "Bring her out."

Ben Kingsley says "Keep her back."

Finally Josh does bring his queen out early, Washington Square style. There's a series of moves and Laurence Fishburne shouts, "There it is!"  A few moves later as Josh takes the other kid's queen.

When I started as Chairman, I brought the queen out early, Washington Square style.

My vision was 20/20 from day 1: I wanted some changes. I wanted to raise the agency's profile so that we could get our recommendations adopted. I wanted to enhance accountability, integrity and transparency – through reorganizations of offices, revamping websites and our Most Wanted List, and holding more public events.

All of these things take time and a lot of effort, and they were all changes. So I needed people on my side, the sooner the better.

There was some resistance to my ideas – but the biggest areas of resistance was pure inertia: Getting people over the anxiety of change. Getting people to invest themselves. And getting them not to "wait me out."

I'll be honest – some people retired or moved on rather than stay and work with me as Chairman. I can be demanding: I think expecting people's best is a way to honor their strengths. Not everyone agrees.

I didn't mind running as fast as I could, but I didn't want to do it just to stand still.  I needed the rest of the agency running with me, so we got somewhere.

Here's Tip #4: In any game of chess, you need the special powers of knights, bishops and rooks. But at the end of the day, unless you make a really foolish move, it's advancing your pawns that wins you the game. All the experts and senior leaders can only be effective through the people doing the real work, the people with the daily mission in front of them.

So my ears were wide open and my door was wide open. I didn't care who was the grandmaster and who was the patzer (POTS-er) from Washington Square. That was my secret weapon, leading by listening.

When you listen seriously even to your worst critics, you learn from them. They'll tell you the flaws in your point of view. They don't know it, but they'll also tell you their underlying assumptions, so you know what you really have to address to win others over.

And when you listen to the "pawns," people who've seen the same problems at work day after day, you get to keep a little bit of pawn vision. Ways to see the board from different squares, not just the one the queen is occupying.

I learned a lot: All the frustrations, grievances &ndash and the positive things too. For one thing, I was right about expecting people's best and being demanding. There were people who were hungry for change, hungry for somebody to address inefficiencies, and hungry for someone to use their strengths.

They weren't just "waiting me out." And rising to higher expectations made all of us stronger together.

My team at the NTSB came through for me, time and time again. My fellow Board Members protected my flank when the agency was under attack from outside organizations or individuals; my senior executives ensured that we stopped hiring and made cuts in advance, so we could spare employee layoffs during the sequester; and the rank and file kept their eyes on the prize, day after day, focusing on the agency's mission rather than budget cuts and pay freezes.

During my time as Chairman, I've seen the landscape of transportation safety change before my eyes. For those of you who are Metro riders, this January I saw a 7000-series test train at Fort Totten, near the site of the deadly crash in 2009. Metro, the local governments and the Congress put up the money to replace the 1000-series cars, when just a few years ago they said it couldn't be done.

Since becoming Chairman in 2009, we've achieved many of my goals for how the agency does its work.

While a lot of factors came together in my favor, I made the choice to bring the queen out early. And I kept in mind the end of the last game in "Searching for Bobby Fischer."

Both kids have pawns that get promoted to queens by reaching the end of the board. But the hero's pawn becomes a queen that puts the other king in check. If he moves the king, he'll lose his queen. So he resigns.

It ended up that the game was all about looking deep into the board at every move, to get the most out of the pawns.

Whether you slowly develop a plan or very quickly disrupt "The way it's always been," you always have to check the board at every move along the way. Keep that pawn vision sharp, because what you're doing may look different from another square.

I hope through my remarks I've made you think about pawns a different way. I know from experience pawns aren't expendable. In the end, my pawn vision was the most powerful tool I had as a leader. For leaders that begin as pawns then become queens, that's what sets you apart – and how you avoid running as fast as you can just to stay in one place.