The power of purpose, personal connections and paying attention
Advice from Knauss alum Stuart Levenbach, Ph.D. on the path to leadership in public policy
By: Alexandra (Lexa) Skrivanek, Ph.D.,
Knauss Fellow, Policy Analyst in the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere / Deputy NOAA Administrator
Stuart Levenbach began his career in marine policy exploring how anemones, macroalgae, sea urchins and fish interact on rocky reefs off southern California. Less than two decades later, he was appointed as the Chief of Staff of NOAA. I asked Dr. Levenbach, now Senior Advisor to the Chairman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ), if he always knew he would play a role in advancing natural resource policy in Washington, D.C. In fact, having full confidence in the Knauss fellowship even before applying to graduate school, he did. However, there were a few plot twists along the way.
Interested in nature and current events from as early as he can remember, Dr. Levenbach, a Michigan native, experienced ocean science and technology firsthand through the High School Aquanaut Program at the University of Connecticut, Avery Point. During two summers, he joined researchers on cruises in the Gulf of Maine and participated in dives to the seafloor in the Johnson Sea Link II. After graduating with a B.S. in Biology and Political Science from the University of Michigan, he volunteered with the U.S. Peace Corps and worked with subsistence farmers to manage a community agroforestry project in northern Ghana. Next, with the intent to explore the Knauss fellowship, he pursued a doctorate in marine ecology from UC Santa Barbara, conducting research on species interactions in kelp forests off the Santa Barbara coast. Dr. Levenbach completed his graduate work in 2007 as a Knauss fellow with Republican staff for the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation in the legislative branch.
The Knauss fellowship jump-started a steep learning curve for Dr. Levenbach that continued for many years. “In some respects, I feel like I am still on [it],” he said in earnest. Dr. Levenbach provided analysis for Senators Stevens and Snowe on the Subcommittee on Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries and Coast Guard, writing background memos, talking points, letters to Members of Congress and public comments on regulations. He also worked on bills and engaged with various stakeholders on environmental policy, including constituents, industry and environmental interest groups, with other committee staff. Dr. Levenbach related, “The entire experience was challenging from the standpoint of figuring out how I could add value to my team.”
S. Levenbach (back right), a C-130 and a group led by Senator Stevens (AK) en route to visit the remote community of Shishmaref - an Alaskan Native community that continues to experience significant coastal erosion.
One of the most memorable moments of his fellowship was traveling in a C-130 to the remote community of Shishmaref – an Alaskan Native community that continues to experience significant erosion along the coast. In a group led by Senator Stevens, and including Senator Landrieu, they ventured to secure support for funding to remedy the situation there. Dr. Levenbach recalled, “…the circumstances under which the residents of Shishmaref live are more challenging than anything I have ever witnessed.”
As a Knauss fellow, Dr. Levenbach recalled that developing leadership skills began by simply paying attention. He notes, “Leadership experience came in watching a very talented staff work on a variety of issues. They all had different approaches and strengths, and I tried to pick what I liked most about them and incorporate into my own style of leadership.” Something that surprised him was how congenial democratic and republican colleagues were when working together. “A successful policy advisor recognizes engaging interests and respects them while acknowledging the others’ legitimate concerns,” Dr. Levenbach mentioned. He learned to appreciate conflict and how it can be used as a catalyst for positive, constructive change. Of working on teams, Dr. Levenbach stated, “The first step is the most important, which is to build consensus around a unified vision of the problem and how to remedy it. This isn’t always easy, and many times in government, one doesn’t have the ability to pick the team. Nonetheless, taking the time to build a coalition is a critical step in achieving one’s goals.”
Since the fellowship, Dr. Levenbach has held a number of positions in federal government. He worked at the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) through three different administrations, first as a Program Examiner and then as Deputy Branch Chief and Senior Policy Analyst in the OMB Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs. There, he made management, budget and policy recommendations on topics relevant to NOAA programs and led an interagency review of nationally significant environmental regulations. As Chief of Staff of NOAA, he supported the Under Secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere, supervising agency-wide policy and operations. Today, as he manages production of the proposed rule to revise the National Environmental Policy Act at the CEQ, Dr. Levenbach’s graduate experience continues to serve him well. “Much like graduate school, you are thrown into a new topic and have to become an expert on it. You also have to be honest about what you know and don’t know,” he related.
S. Levenbach (left) with now Congressman Garret Graves (R-LA 6th District) in the back of a vehicle during the trip to visit the Shishmaref community in Alaska during his fellowship year.
Reflecting on his career thus far, Dr. Levenbach is proud that he can honestly say he brought his A-game to work every day. He hopes to have a lasting impact on the organizations he has worked with, although he acknowledges that, sometimes, it is a process. Dr. Levenbach mentioned, “You don’t know what your impact [will be] until many years later.”
For current and future Knauss fellows, Dr. Levenbach shared three pieces of advice. First, establish life goals. Consider writing out a five-year vision in a “day in the life format” that addresses questions such as who do you want to live with, where do you want to live and how? He saw himself advising leaders on resource policy, and this clarity of purpose assisted him in evaluating career choices. Second, learn from elders. He suggested, “Talk to as many people as possible, have coffee with them and ask them how they reached their current position.” Third, have fun! “People like working with people who have fun and enthusiasm for their work”, Dr. Levenbach shared. “Public policy is complex, and it is as much about the issues as it is the people. There are limits to what a formal education can teach you. My advice is to jump in, the (salt)water’s fine.”