Observing Key Leadership Competencies at the NTSB

By Rocco Dryfka

2009 Cherry Valley, IL, train accident

My supervisor was a little surprised when I told him that I wanted to spend three months with the NTSB as part of a leadership development program. My normal place of work is with the Defense Intelligence Agency, so he wondered why I didn’t pursue an assignment at one of the other intelligence agencies with which we routinely work. I explained that I wanted to see how federal agencies beyond the intelligence community operated. After all, the goal for this external assignment was to become acquainted with the culture of another federal agency and observe key leadership attributes, such as executive decision making, problem solving, vision, strategic thinking, and leading change. Consequently, there was no reason to limit myself to agencies like mine. With a previous background in the transportation industry, I felt the NTSB would be a good fit.

While I was familiar with the NTSB mission, I had no idea how the mission was carried out on a day-to-day basis until I began my assignment with the Office of Railroad, Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Investigations (RPH). Over the course of my assignment with RPH, I observed the staff complete its investigation into the deadly 2009 Cherry Valley, IL, train accident and prepare for the NTSB Board meeting where the probable cause would be determined and safety recommendations made. Reading the extensive draft report gave me a sense of the carnage the accident caused, and my follow-on discussions with the investigator-in-charge Dick Hipskind and other staff members gave me insight to the methodical approach RPH uses to uncover the facts and articulate the analysis and findings. As I watched the RPH staff members practice their presentations during mock Board meetings, I was struck by the great effort RPH investigators and staff undertook to examine the accident holistically to not only identify the root cause but also the systemic issues that contributed to the accident.

During my assignment, I also had the opportunity to shadow NTSB Board Member Mark R. Rosekind over a two-day period. In several meetings on the topic of transportation safety, Member Rosekind continually spoke of “raising the bar” or “taking it to the next level,” reflecting a culture of vision, strategic thinking, and leading change advocated by NTSB Chairman Deborah Hersman. As the Board meeting approached and Member Rosekind and his fellow Board members were busy analyzing the Cherry Valley accident report, it was apparent that all their effort and the high level of scrutiny would ensure that the investigation and subsequent findings and safety recommendations would be factual, thorough, and all-encompassing.

Accurately capturing the facts from an accident investigation, articulating the analysis and findings, and offering recommendations in a concise and timely package is a monumental undertaking. Being a change agent and continual advocate for transportation safety is likewise challenging. But the NTSB gets the job done because it routinely exercises key leadership competencies at numerous levels. Since my goal for participating in the leadership development program was to gain insight into leadership competencies, I made a good choice in coming to the NTSB.


Rocco Dryfka is an analyst for the Defense Intelligence Agency on a three-month leadership development assignment to the NTSB Office of Railroad, Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Investigations.

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