THE BLOG
11/22/2010 03:39 pm ET Updated Jun 14, 2011

The Federal Coach: Young Government Leaders: Lessons for the Next Generation

This Federal Coach column originally ran in The Washington Post.

Facebook recently marked the 500 million user milestone. With this accomplishment, the social networking website has more people than the populations of the United States, Indonesia and Brazil.

In all of its amazing success, it's easy to forget that Facebook is run by Mark Zuckerberg, a leader who is only 26 years old. Last week, the Washington Post's Leadership Playlist blog had a thought-provoking post on Zuckerberg's leadership. This analysis, along with a question I received from a friend, got me thinking about the challenges facing young federal leaders.

For someone like Zuckerberg, those challenges often involve dealing with seasoned corporate and financial titans who could be his father or grandfather, and who may not necessarily consider him their equal even as they grasp the power and economic value of his enterprise.

Young federal leaders have their own set of challenges on a daily basis, and face issues of great consequence to the American people --leading people who are performing cutting-edge work that supports our economy, defends our rights, safeguards our neighborhoods, protects our environment and heals our sick.

Like Zuckerberg, they regularly work with people who have far more experience and must supervise their elders--many of whom may think they are smarter and wiser than that enthusiastic, wide-eyed young fed.

Here is some advice for young government leaders who have that sinking feeling that everyone around them is asking, "Who's this new kid telling me how to do my job?"

•Be confident -A friend recently told me a story from her first federal supervisory experience. When confronted by a colleague who said, "There's a rumor going around that your only 25 years old. That's impossible!" My friend responded, "You're right. I'm 24, and I'm leading this team because I'm good at my job." Whether someone is brashly questioning your ability or you're encountering your own self-doubt, remember there's a reason you were chosen to lead.

•But have some humility - Of course, too much confidence can be perceived as arrogance. Don't pretend to have all of the answers. In fact, it's more important that you ask the right questions as a leader. One of the best pieces of feedback that I've ever received came from a team member. She told me that she appreciated that I ask, "What do you think?" whenever she sought my guidance. This simple question can help empower your employees and build confidence to make decisions on their own.

•Do your homework - In some ways, your learning is just beginning when you become a leader. Even if your agency doesn't have the resources for a leadership development program, take time out of your busy schedule to learn more about leadership in your agency. Find an HR expert who can give you the ins and outs of hiring. Identify an experienced leader in your agency who is admired by many who can share tips on how to navigate the unique personalities present on every team. Keep up-to-date on topics relevant to being an outstanding and effective leader by reading books, articles and websites like OnLeadership that provide the latest insight about leading and inspiring people.