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Leadership and Empathy in Challenging Times

30 March 2020

When I started thinking about this message weeks ago, I initially planned for it to tie together NOAA’s 50th anniversary, Women’s History Month, and lessons I’ve learned throughout my career. Now, as I settle into my home office for the foreseeable future, our world is being turned upside down by COVID-19. The coming weeks and months will be difficult if not scarring for our nation. My educational background in biology not only compels me to take the new coronavirus seriously for myself and my family, but also to feel the weight of my responsibility to the entire workforce of the National Ocean Service (NOS), here and across the country. 

As the situation continues to evolve throughout the country, the responsibility of leadership and of keeping the NOS workforce healthy and focused on executing our mission is daunting. I wish there were more I could do to offer comfort and protection to NOS staff through the impending and lasting hardships. I wish there were more directly applicable lessons I could use as a salve on this gaping wound, but there is actually relatively little within my direct influence that I can do to keep our people safe and healthy. 

But before I let myself believe that nothing I’ve gleaned throughout my 20+ year career at NOAA has prepared me to lead NOS during a global pandemic and national emergency, I will stop that thought in its tracks.  As the only woman serving at the head of a NOAA Line Office, I know that much of my job — regardless of the topic — is centered not around proving my expertise, but around adding value when and where it is needed. That’s why I’m drawing upon the many lessons that I’ve learned throughout my career in quick thinking, calm and steady leadership, open communication, and flexibility and empathy. This empathy extends not only to those in our NOS family, but to our extended NOS family — our parents, our children, our in-laws, and others who we love and who depend on us. And when I look up and out beyond NOS, this empathy extends to those we serve, our communities, and the public at large.

It is because of these lessons learned that, throughout this national crisis, I will remain committed to leading NOS by making decisions that are equal parts factual and compassionate. One could speculate that these complementary leadership attributes come naturally to me because I’m a woman in a position of power, and because women are traditionally thought of as nurturers. Perhaps that’s true, but I’d argue that anyone can both think and feel at the same time, and that everyone should do both when making decisions that affect people’s lives.

As we work from home, counting the days since we've had close contact with others, figuring out how to safely buy groceries, caring for loved ones, and educating our children, I have no doubt that our committed NOS workforce will do all that it can to continue to deliver vital ocean and coastal data and other essential products, tools, and services that our nation depends upon for its economic health and prosperity. I’d like to think that 50 years from now, when NOAA is celebrating its centennial, the NOS workforce will look back at our accomplishments over these weeks and months, and recognize that, working as a team, we both thought and felt our way through these challenging times.

Steady as we go,

Nicole R. LeBoeuf
Assistant Administrator (Acting)
Ocean Services and Coastal Zone Management,
National Ocean Service
Assistant Administrator (Actg.) Portrait

Nicole R. LeBoeuf
Assistant Administrator (Acting), National Ocean Service

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