The son of an Air Force veteran and a history teacher, Jeff Eggers attended the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., with his heart set on learning to fly jets off of aircraft carriers. Once he learned about the SEAL program, however, his future headed in a different direction because, “I wanted to get in the business of leadership,” Eggers explains. After a “mostly straightforward SEAL career,” Eggers transitioned from operations to strategic policy, most recently serving as Special Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs.
These days, Eggers has more work-life balance and the flexibility to invest in his family (which includes two small children) that his previous military service and government work largely prevented. Serving as a senior fellow at New America, his focus on leadership remains, researching how to revitalize American prosperity by changing how the business community thinks about workplace independence and how public policy must take into account behavioral science in order to be effective. NationSwell sat down with Eggers at the Washington, D.C., offices of New America to discuss the need to create a “self-driven, self-directed, more autonomous workforce.”
What is the best advice you’ve ever been given on leadership?
Someone once said to me, “don’t take yourself too seriously.” We’re all the same species, and one of the greatest mistakes that occurs when people get promoted to increasing levels of seniority is that they start taking themselves too seriously. I think leaders can ground themselves in a sense of humility, empathy, awareness and a respect for others. Doing so is one of the cornerstones of effective leadership. It’s not about you; it’s about the team.
What’s on your nightstand?
It’s David Rothkopf’s “National Insecurity,” which is professional reading. I’m writing a longer piece on how our culture of fear is undercutting our national decision-making and that’s one of the books I keep for that research. Unfortunately, my nightstand is not well equipped with enjoyable, light reads.
What is your biggest need right now?
My greatest need was to rebalance work, life and family, which I did. That box is largely checked, and that was a big deal. One of my big needs right now is to create a network of experts and likeminded practitioners around this idea of behavioral policy and to develop a framework for how you could, with some scale, start to influence at a strategic level how you think about public policy, how we train people to do public policy. Bringing together this kind of core network will become the people who shape and build this program with me.
What do you wish someone had told you when you started this job?
Too many people said it was going to be easy and not to overthink it. I think that I wish more people would’ve said the opposite — that it was going to be very difficult, steady yourself; it’s going to be harder than you think. Because for me personally, my desire was to test this hypothesis: To do the work-life balance and put family first you need to accept risk and you need to leap and hope that the net will appear. I came to advocate for that in such a way that I had to promote it by doing it. I had to live it. I did and that coupled with this mantra of “don’t overthink it; it’ll be easier than you think” — whoa! The leap has been a doozy at times, and some cautionary note of, “Absolutely, take the leap, but do a lot of thinking about all the various aspects of it,” [would’ve been nice.]
What inspires you?
Mostly, I’m always inspired by people that I respect and admire. My parents have been the longest, consistent source of inspiration. They put a lot of their energies in to their family — invested in their family, made sacrifices for their family. But also, they significantly advanced from one generation to another in life for more opportunities and that’s pretty inspiring, especially at a time when so few people have faith in the American Dream.
Today, I’m inspired by people who have a lot of moral conviction and intellectual courage to speak up against the mainstream conventional wisdom, especially when the mainstream conventional wisdom needs to be disrupted. That takes a significant amount of courage.
How do you inspire others?
By making people believe there is greatness in themselves. No one needs to look to anyone else for greatness or inspiration. There’s a tremendous amount of potential for greatness is each person. Too often we look to people that we ascribe greatness as having some sort of inherent advantage that made them great and that’s not the case. I would like everyone to understand that they are themselves a superhero, a genius. There’s no reason why everyone can’t tap into that. If everyone taps into a little bit of that, that small amount of incremental change is going to be extraordinary.
What is your proudest accomplishment?
It hasn’t happened yet. My proudest accomplishment will be raising my kids [ages 3 and 6]. That’s going to be my life’s work.
It’s more gratifying to see pride in accomplishments made by people that work for me. You don’t get any credit for them, but in my case, they’re more important [than what I’ve accomplished].
What should people know about you that they don’t?
I’m a pretty avid paraglider pilot. It’s the remnants of a formerly active and robust recreational lifestyle that had to be whittled down and made manageable with a family. The only real thing that I couldn’t ever let go of is my passion for paragliding. I had a bit of a scare back in September  and kind of grounded myself and I’m now going through the soul-searching process of whether I can be both a responsible dad and an active paraglider pilot. That’s kind of a big deal. [Paragliding] is kind of scratching that aviation itch that I’ve had ever since I was a tiny kid and it’s how I’ve become a pilot. So it’s very, very fundamental and hard to let go of.
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This interview has been edited and condensed.