CDC’s Rothwell epitomizes ‘top shelf’ leadership

Overseeing the Division of Vital Statistics at the Centers for Disease Control's National Center for Health Statistics in Hyattsville, Md., Charles Rothwell was...

Charles Rothwell said he was bowled over when he learned one of his colleagues nominated him to be a Top Leader in Federal Service and that a panel of judges had selected him as one of the five award winners.

“I was shocked,” said Rothwell. “There are so many, what I consider, fine leaders in all the branches of government. I was shocked that someone like me would be selected, so I’m very gratified and honored for it. I think people don’t realize the fine leadership that is in federal government, so many managers and leaders who’ve done a great job to get us where we are right now. I’m just standing on the shoulders of many people who came before me and I’m just hoping that I live up to what they’ve done.”

Charles J. Rothwell, director, Division of Vital Statistics, Centers for Disease Control, National Center for Health Statistics (Photo by Michael O’Connell)
As director of the Division of Vital Statistics at the Centers for Disease Control’s National Center for Health Statistics in Hyattsville, Md., Rothwell occupies one of the oldest positions in the federal government.

“It was first created in 1850 in the Bureau of Census,” he said, in an interview with Federal News Radio. “I’ve worked in this position for about 10 years. We work directly with all the states and a variety of other folks who provide us with data for the vital statistics of the United States.”

The information Rothwell’s office collects and collates addresses a variety of health topics. “When you read anything about infant deaths, when you read anything about teenage pregnancy, the major causes of death, the emerging causes of death in certain areas, all that comes from the Vital Statistics of the United States, from our states,” he said.

The person who nominated Rothwell for the Top Leader award praised him for the way he engages his staff.

“In my mind, this man epitomizes everything a top-shelf leader should be, which makes him exceedingly rare in federal service or even private industry,” the nominator wrote. “First of all, he has vision, a long-term view of where he wants his organization to go. That vision is both clear and specific, not a cluster of ambiguous generalities. Secondly, he has a very good sense of how to operationalize that. In other words, he has thought through a basic road map of how to get there and knows that it is feasible. Third, he truly welcomes the input of his staff. This is possibly the most rare characteristic of all.”

Rothwell said he was gratified that someone felt that way about him and the work he does.

“If you’re a leader, it’s not about you,” he said. “It’s about the organization, the people. They are the ones that get you to where you are going. You’re not the one that’s dragging them. They’re pushing you. So what you need to do is to give them your vision then let them tell you how they think you can get there and put that together as a plan and move out. It’s really about giving people an idea of where they need to be, where we want to be in the future and then letting them decide how we’re going to get there. If you’ve got good people, you’ll get there.”

What qualities do you admire in a good leader?

Rothwell: I believe there are about seven qualities necessary for a good leader. … The proportions in this leadership mix will be different for each of us, but in some manner they should contain the following: exact knowledge or competence, sustained effort, honesty, tolerance, moral courage, delegation of authority and humility. Of those, I believe that the ability to retain humility is a far more important quality than is commonly thought. Being without humility makes tolerance and delegation of authority difficult to effectively utilize. The first two qualities have to do with personal competence and work ethic, for no matter how much you have of the other five, people won’t follow someone who is not competent and who does not practice what he asks others to do. The third quality, honesty, has to be in a large enough proportion for the other four qualities to be believed. For staff to accept your leadership over an extended period, they must have trust in you. However, for these qualities in whatever proportion to ring true, I believe that people must sense that deep within, you have a love of your fellow man. If you don’t, how can your vision be theirs?

What is your leadership philosophy?

Rothwell: To be an effective leader you must have a vision of where you want to take the organization and you must be able to make it clear to those around you. However, no matter how motivating and clear that vision is, one must have the qualities or values mentioned above for staff to accept that vision as their own. To achieve that vision, they must get you there and not the other way around.

Who inspired you as a leader when you were younger?

Rothwell: My father inspired me but in a rather unusual way. He was a career Marine and was an infantry battalion commander through WWII and, to my knowledge, the only one to make it through the battles on the islands of Roi Namur, Saipan, Tinian and Iwo Jima. However, unlike many of his peers that I knew as a youngster, he was not bigger than life. He was quiet, humble and honest-to-a-fault; he worked exceedingly hard and well under pressure, and was very competent. He believed in what he did, he was proud of what his men achieved, he took what he did very seriously, but he did not take his achievements too seriously. Yet, he was not what I had heard about, read about or saw in the movies on what a leader was supposed to be and act. Yet, his men trusted and followed him and he got me to thinking there must be more to leadership than what I had read about and just perhaps there might be hope for someone like me.

Who do you admire as a good leader now? Why?

Rothwell: I was fortunate enough to work for a short time on the staff of Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) during the health care reform years of the Clinton Administration. I really did not know much about him when I went to his office … either his stance on issues or his personality. While in his office, I worked on education and health care reform issues. I was amazed at his openness, his willingness to share his thoughts and listen to yours. On the legislation you worked with him on, you knew why it was important to him and why he thought it was important to the country. He was unafraid to deal with senators across the aisle to find common ground. He had moral courage, which I had thought was missing in Congress, but that moral courage still allowed him to find common ground. He was, as far as I could tell, honest to himself and others and could laugh at himself. He tolerated diverse opinions in order to find the right reason for the direction taken. Your views counted in his office, no matter how junior you were. He has now just retired from the Senate, but I cannot believe his leadership won’t be put to good use elsewhere and, of course, he has been an inspiration to those lucky enough to have worked for him.

What advice would you give to someone who wants to improve their leadership skills?

Rothwell: First, you must be seen as competent. You do not need to know more than everyone on your staff, far from it, for you are dependent on them, but you must be seen as someone who can synthesize all the facts together to make wise choices and take appropriate action. Also, you must believe in what you are doing … that the work of your organization is indeed vitally important to you. If you have not done so already, look within as best you can to know yourself … who you are … and who you are not. Look at outstanding leaders, especially those who have qualities that you hold important and feel you can emulate. Study those who are in positions of authority and yet fail as leaders. What were they missing? What did they do or not do that did not live up to the position they held? Mentor with someone you respect as a leader, someone you think you could emulate. However, in the end, you must be yourself in order to lead others with a common purpose.

What’s the most challenging part of being a leader?

Rothwell: It is true that there are times when a decision is best put off until better information is available, but it is also true that such an approach can become all too easy and lead to stagnation and needless vacillation. In the end, you must be willing to take decisive action many times with less than optimal information. When those decisions prove to be wrong, you must take responsibility and then take immediate corrective action, even if it winds-up being actions previously recommended by others.

What is the most rewarding part of being a leader?

Rothwell: To see staff grow and thrive while meeting a common goal. More From the Special Report: Top Leaders in Federal Service:

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