Homeland security is latest mission for city native

Deputy secretary's life has been succession of moves to next new thing

April 28, 2003|By Laura Sullivan | Laura Sullivan,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - For a man whose mission is to protect America from a terrorist attack, Gordon England occupies an office that is small, plain and altogether unremarkable. He has no mementos on the wall, no plaques on the coffee table, no memorabilia on the desk.

But atop a cheap wooden table in the center of the room is one intriguing item: a piece of paper showing 22 boxes with a clutch of arrows crisscrossing and circling. The boxes represent 22 government agencies, all now under England's command at the Department of Homeland Security - and the image is one of utter chaos.

"Good luck, Gordon," is scrawled across the top, signed John W. Warner, the Republican senator from Virginia.

England, a native Baltimorean who is second-in-charge of the new department, is overseeing the task of melding 170,000 employees into one agency. The department has been running for seven weeks, defying critics who said it would take far longer to institute a payroll system, a command structure and a vision among so many varied agencies.

That the department has achieved the first steps to the largest government reorganization in five decades, lawmakers and Pentagon officials say, is directly attributable to England, a blunt, earnest man who has spent his life always on the cusp of the next new thing.

"I have had an astonishing life," the 65-year-old England said recently in his office at the department's new headquarters in Northwest Washington. "I have done more things, more than most people, more than I ever thought. At any point in my career, I could have stopped and said, `Well, this is amazing.'"

Just before coming to the Homeland Security Department, England served as secretary of the Navy. Before that, he was a defense contractor at General Dynamics and later at Lockheed Martin, ushering the first shuttle missions into space, developing the first F-16 fighter planes and overseeing mergers and acquisitions. Charming and affable, he rarely seems to sit still. His front chair legs are usually an inch off the ground.

While Tom Ridge, the department secretary, is often on Capitol Hill talking with lawmakers or monitoring threats to the nation, the deputy secretary typically remains at his desk, coordinating day-to-day operations.

His days are crammed with meetings and phone calls, calming contractors itching to do business with the department, trying to bring state and local law enforcement into the homeland security circle and averting crises, from computer hiccups to performance problems across the spectrum of agencies.

`People person'

England's expertise in large mergers and his experience with the Navy made him a logical pick for the job. But the Bush administration is also counting on his personal traits, especially two of them: his frankness and his powers of persuasion.

"He's an incredible people person," said Rep. Kay Granger, a Texas Republican who pushed for England to get the post.

Granger got to know England during the economic recession that hurt Fort Worth in the 1990s, when she was mayor and he worked for Lockheed Martin.

"He has no ego, and he'll tell you exactly the truth," the congresswoman said. "It's really very rare. Most visionary people are not good managers. In his case, he is both."

What Granger recalls most about him from that time, when he operated at the senior levels of Lockheed's hierarchy and the company was frequently conducting layoffs, was standing with him outside the company building as people flooded into work.

"He knew every employee's name," she said. "`How's your wife, Jane, has your son decided on a college?' He knew all of them, and they knew him."

Managing slogan

England brought those skills to the Navy in May 2001. He came in vowing to overhaul defense contracting and to be able to deploy on shorter notice. His transition to becoming the top Navy boss, with a $110 billion budget and 800,000 sailors and civilian workers, was, according to some who worked for him, seamless.

England says he has found that one key to leading effectively and commanding loyalty is not to micromanage others. To drive this point home, he adopted the slogan used by Adm. Horatio Nelson, who led the British to victory during the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805 with a simple maxim: "England expects every man will do his duty."

While visiting Britain as Navy secretary, England found a stash of ties at a British museum emblazoned with the signal flags that spell out that message. He bought the whole stock and has given them to nearly everyone who has worked directly with him in recent years. He wears the tie in his official portrait that will soon hang in the Pentagon.

"It's an astonishing leadership message," England said. Nelson "didn't tell people to load their guns or how to fight the fight."

One tie recipient was Adm. Vern Clark, chief of naval operations.

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