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USGS Director Marcia McNutt on Leadership

Dr. Marcia McNutt is the director of the U.S. Geological Survey, the nation's largest Earth, water, biological science and civilian mapping agency.
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Dr. Marcia McNutt is the director of the U.S. Geological Survey, the nation's largest Earth, water, biological science and civilian mapping agency. Previously, she served as president and chief executive officer of the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute. McNutt is a distinguished scientist, participating in 15 major oceanographic expeditions and serving as chief scientist on more than half of those voyages.

What leadership lessons have you learned from working as a chief scientist on oceanographic expeditions, and how have you applied them as USGS director?

Number one, you really have to plan ahead and make sure you've got everything well organized. When you're on a seven-day sail out of Easter Island, you can't suddenly go back for something you forgot. Second, make sure you're working as hard as, if not harder than, anyone else. You have to be the first person out on deck when an operation begins and the last person there when things are wrapping up. You can't be seen as someone sitting back, expecting other people to do the dirty work. Third, even as chief scientist you recognize that there's really no hierarchy on the ship. You need to treat everyone as though they are the most important person on the ship, whether it's the newest deck hand or the captain.

How do you replicate that sort of hands-on approach to your broader role?

When I go to USGS science centers, I'll meet everyone from a technician to a director. You have to understand what those people are doing and how they got to do their job and express how much you appreciate their efforts. As an example, USGS technicians maintain stream gauges on the Mississippi River. We gave word to the Army Corps of Engineers that it was time to blow the levees between Birds Point and New Madrid in Missouri. Explosive charges had been buried in the 1920s, put in there for just such a situation. The Mississippi hit a flood stage we had never seen in the history of the USGS. Because those technicians had been working 24/7 to maintain those hydrographic stations, we were able to collect that data, predict the record-high water and alert the Army Corps that cities all along the Mississippi and Ohio rivers were going to be inundated if the farmland wasn't flooded. As a result, the towns were saved.

How can you foster a spirit of innovation among USGS employees and encourage them to take risks to achieve goals?

I came from the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute in California. [Founder] David Packard's advice was, "If you don't fail often enough, you aren't taking enough risks." So many people depend on USGS information to reduce seismic risk, inform them on water quantity and quality, and maintain ecosystem health that we can't have as high a risk profile. But we are such a large consumer that we can drive technology in a way a small institution never could. We can say to the commercial market, "This is what we would love to be able to do, and if you are able to develop something for us, we'd be likely to buy it." The commercial market can work with universities or smaller institutions to develop prototypes and [we might] eventually buy 10,000. That's the kind of market they love.

What are challenges of being the first female director in the 130 years of the agency's existence?

The biggest challenge has been being the first woman director. I can't tell you how much I really hate that title. Someone introduces me as the first woman director and I look around and think, can we get beyond that? Is there anything else I might have done that would qualify me? My next thought is, "Wow, what took this agency so long to come up with a woman director?" Once you get beyond both of those two things, I don't think there's anything other than that. USGS, except for the fact that the directors happened to be men for many years, was mostly run by women anyway.

In the wake of so many natural disasters this year, what advice do you have for leaders on how to lead and motivate during frequent crises?

I'd turn that around. In a crisis, everyone says, "We'll do whatever is needed to get the job done." People's lives are on the line, the environment is on the line, the nation needs us. The question is more, how do we maintain that spirit of cooperation, collaboration and sense of purpose when we don't have a crisis? The USGS workforce as a whole feels very engaged and supportive of the mission. Who wouldn't want to work for an agency responsible for helping the nation be safe from natural hazards, have clean water, healthy eco-systems, abundant energy and minerals, and be prepared for the worst impacts of climate change? It's got to be anyone's dream mission.

What do you consider to be a critical event to your becoming the leader you are today?

Definitely being a mother. I have identical twins. There were times when they would argue and disagree on something and I would, as a mother, try to intervene to prevent World War III from breaking out. Each was absolutely positive truth and justice was on her side. My job was to try to help each of them see the perspective of the other in a situation where neither one was wrong. They simply needed to get a broader perspective. That's so much of what I do in my job. I've got a whole agency full of identical twins that basically all have truth and justice on their side. All they need to do is get a broader perspective.

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