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Vol. LXIV, No. 20
September 28, 2012

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Graduates of NIH Midlevel Leadership Program Get Advice

Dr. Sally Rockey
Dr. Sally Rockey, NIH deputy director for extramural research, describes the qualities of a good leader.
When Dr. Sally Rockey, NIH deputy director for extramural research, is asked what makes a good leader, she talks about ironing.

In her keynote presentation to the 28 graduates of NIH’s first cohort of the Midlevel Leadership Program (MLP) and their guests, Rockey shared a story from the childhood of her friend Dr. Lana Skirboll, former director of the NIH Division of Program Coordination, Planning and Strategic Initiatives, and now with Sanofi.

“When Lana was young, her father wore beautiful white shirts to work every day,” said Rockey. “Lana’s mother had given her the responsibility of ironing the shirts. And she had to iron those shirts with precision. Every crease, every dart, every fold had to be absolutely perfect. She did it over and over again. One day her mother came in and Lana was ironing sheets with the same exact precision with which she ironed shirts. And her mother said, ‘Lana, these are sheets. Know when it’s a sheet and when it’s a shirt.’”

The moral of the story is to pick your battles as a leader. This and other indispensable wisdom was offered to the graduates to celebrate their year-long endeavor to examine and sharpen the skills necessary for assuming leadership positions at NIH and elsewhere.

The hour-long event took place recently in Bldg. 60, where many MLP sessions had been held over the past year. That includes one memorable session in August 2011, when participants all broke from their discussion groups to duck under wooden tables to wait out an earthquake that had struck the region.

The course was developed by the Office of Human Resources’ NIH Training Center and taught by John McCann, director of training and development at CI International, and a retired commander of the U.S. Coast Guard. The program includes an orientation session, five 2-day instructional sessions spanning key leadership competencies and 6 months of post-learning support activities, along with homework assignments and self-assessment activities. Since its launch in July 2011, 5 cohorts of 28 participants have begun the program.

McCann explained how the group’s willingness to reveal insecurities, weaknesses and failures—to be vulnerable—was what made them strong.

“I read recently that in a study of Olympic athletes, there were many different characteristics that contribute to their ability to perform at the highest levels,” said McCann. “The one constant was this: a willingness to fail. Not seeking failure, but rather knowing that if we don’t push ourselves, and be willing to fail, we will never achieve greatness. You created a safe place here where you could put aside a fear of being judged, be willing to fail and allow yourselves to be open to new learning. You did that together, you created that together and I admire you for it and I honor you for it.”

Colleen Barros, NIH deputy director for management, congratulated the class for its willingness to step outside of their comfort zones and to learn from the experience and skill sets that each of the participants provided.

“In every one of these [leadership] programs, when you say, ‘What did you value most in the program?’ the answer is always ‘The chance to talk to people outside my swim lane. To get out of my area where we all do things the same and talk to someone with a different perspective who may be grappling with a similar problem,’” she said.

To learn more about the Midlevel Leadership Program, contact Robert Michon at or (301) 496-0264.

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