Case Study: Becoming Self-Aware
How one public servant’s strong self-awareness helped create a more nuclear-secure world
For decades, the federal government has worked to keep nuclear facilities around the world safe and secure. In the early 2000s, these efforts hit a snag when yearlong talks between the Energy Department and the Russian Defense Ministry stalled, leaving nuclear materials in the former Soviet country vulnerable to theft and misuse.
A dynamic federal leader finally broke the logjam: Nicole Nelson-Jean, a recently hired 28-year-old working in the National Nuclear Security Administration’s Material Protection Control and Accounting Program. Soon after she joined the agency, Nelson-Jean became a critical member of the U.S. team that had been negotiating with Russian authorities. In just four months, she revived the stalemated talks and hammered out a landmark agreement that laid the groundwork for the construction of the Kola Technical Center, the country’s first nuclear training facility. Afterward, she received a Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medal, a premier award that recognizes innovation and leadership in the federal government.
Nelson-Jean’s unique sense of self-awareness made this breakthrough possible. Despite being the youngest person and only woman of color on the team, she ably related her own experiences to those of her Russian counterparts, cultivating an atmosphere of trust and mutual respect that facilitated productive talks. The characteristics inherent in this approach—an authentic communication style, intellectual curiosity and an ability to self-reflect —have helped Nelson-Jean create a more nuclear-secure world throughout her nearly three-decade career in public service.
“When I’m presented with an opportunity, I accept it and I move forward. I think many times we limit ourselves and say, ‘I’m not sure if I’m ready for that. I’m not sure if that’s something that I can do, or if I have the educational background or the social background.’ None of that comes to mind when I am presented with opportunities. I say yes.” she said.
From the story: In what ways does Nelson-Jean’s approach to challenges reflect a strong sense of self-awareness?
For reflection: How might you strengthen your sense of self-confidence, even, or perhaps especially, when you have different perspectives or a different background than others in your workplace?
For action: What challenge are you facing now that you could turn into an opportunity for self-assured leadership?
Becoming self-aware begins with an introspective understanding of your values, thought patterns and motivations, all of which are essential to personal development and better interactions with others. Self-awareness is an anchor, enabling you as a leader to stay true to yourself and perform at your highest level in service to the American public. The five subcompetencies to becoming self-aware include:Learn more
Learning the field
Nelson-Jean did not envision a career in nuclear security growing up. As a college student, she knew little about nuclear issues or the country’s nuclear history.
But a passion for learning led her to quickly develop expertise on the subject.
During her undergraduate years, Nelson-Jean’s father—a former member of the Navy Construction Battalion—began working at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, a leading science and technology lab that helped develop atomic weapons during World War II.
During one visit, Nelson-Jean discovered Los Alamos had an internship program for college students. Seeking new opportunities, she applied to the program, was accepted and shortly thereafter organized Los Alamos’ first student-led organization.
Nelson-Jean said that scientists in the lab noticed her leadership skills and initiative. Eventually, she connected with a mentor who encouraged her to explore nuclear security work.
Nelson-Jean followed suit by researching Los Alamos’ history and the country’s nuclear strategy. Her first project—asking private citizens if the lab could access their property to do nuclear cleanup—sparked further curiosity about America’s nuclear past.
Later, Nelson-Jean went to Washington, D.C., to support her mentor’s work on a high-level Energy Department advisory committee. The experience enabled Nelson-Jean to see firsthand how her activities at Los Alamos helped strengthen the country’s national security. Understanding the broader impact of her work has motivated Nelson-Jean to take her responsibilities seriously and hold herself to high standards of integrity as a public servant.
“I was able to make that connection by physically being [in Washington, D.C.] and understanding how important [Los Alamos’ work] was for our nation. That’s really where I got the gravity of the work that we were doing,” she said.
From the story: How did Nicole’s curiosity benefit her? How did she continue to learn and be open to new challenges throughout her early career?
For reflection: When was the last time your desire to learn caused you to step outside of your comfort zone?
For action: How will you seek out opportunities to continually learn and grow?
The Russian negotiations
These experiences launched Nelson-Jean into her full-time position with the National Nuclear Security Administration’s Material Protection Control and Accounting Program, which aims to secure and protect nuclear material in Russia and other former Soviet Union countries.
Once again, Nelson-Jean’s passion for learning enabled her to tackle new challenges.
As she researched the program, Nelson-Jean read about a failed agreement with the Russian Federation regarding its nuclear training facilities. She sent written comments to her immediate supervisor recommending the team organize face-to-face meetings with the Russian negotiators. Previously, the two sides had conducted all their meetings via phone, email or cable communication.
The suggestion underscored one of the core characteristics that has enabled Nelson-Jean’s success: a desire to listen to—and build trusting relationships with—people who hold different perspectives than she does.
“ We were talking past each other and not giving ourselves the ability to really listen. We were stating our demands, but not really listening to the other party,” she said.
Impressed by this fresh approach, Nelson-Jean’s supervisor sent the recommendations to the National Nuclear Security Administration’s assistant secretary, an expert on Russian security issues.
Initially, Nelson-Jean worried that her ideas would be rejected. “I was a little shaky because I was brand new and very young at the time,” Nelson-Jean said.
Instead, the opposite occurred: The assistant secretary agreed with Nelson-Jean’s suggestions and immediately included her on the Department of Energy’s negotiation team.
The lesson for Nelson-Jean was clear: Investigate new ideas and don’t be afraid to express them.
“That’s what really started me down this path—just sort of scribbling some recommendations on how to move forward,” she said.
Nelson-Jean’s supervisor told her to expect an icy reception from the Russian negotiators because she had a very different background than the seasoned Cold War veterans who comprised the Russian delegation.
But Nelson-Jean’s authentic communication style enabled her to defy the odds.
Throughout the negotiations, Nelson-Jean found common ground with her Russian counterparts by connecting her experiences to certain aspects of Russian life and culture. She talked about reading Dostoevsky in graduate school, for example, and discussed her father’s Navy career—something that the Russian team’s naval officers related to immediately.
“I find that, if you’re open, people will always find a way to connect with you. All you have to do is be open to finding that connection with them,” she said.
For Nelson-Jean, making these types of cross-cultural connections was nothing new. As the daughter of a military man who moved frequently, she lived in three different countries before arriving in the U.S. and attended eight high schools in five states.
These experiences provided Nelson-Jean with a unique ability to connect with people of diverse backgrounds.
“I appreciated diversity from an early age because I lived in so many different parts of the country and different parts of the world,” she said. “I just think that made me better at really listening and seeking to understand.”
Nelson-Jean’s negotiating skills and communication style helped her end the long stalemate. Within four months, she finalized an agreement with the Russian team that laid the groundwork for the construction on the Kola Technical Center, a joint training facility designed to help Russia better protect and inspect its nuclear material stockpiles.
Nelson-Jean attributes this success to forging an emotional connection with the Russian delegation.
“At the end of the day, it’s not so much what you say and how it comes out, but people remember how you made them feel,” she said.
From the story: How would you describe Nicole’s approach and strategy for building rapport with her counterparts in Russia? What assumptions did she test?
For reflection: How does one develop a strong sense of self? How might you challenge yourself to test your assumptions about others?
For action: How might you better use your emotional intelligence to get results? How might you seek out and embrace diverse opinions and perspectives?
Embracing new challenges
These qualities have enabled Nelson-Jean to tackle new challenges throughout her career.
After working in several posts overseas, she returned to the National Nuclear Security Administration to help run the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, which helps manage the country’s nuclear weapons stockpile.
As part of this work, she oversaw the lab’s National Ignition Facility, the world’s largest laser system, which helps scientists observe how nuclear reactions occur. At one point, Nelson-Jean had to convince a worried public and skeptical policymakers that the facility could safely use plutonium for its work.
To do so, she and her team briefed officials at the departments of Energy and Defense, spoke with key members of Congress and conducted continual outreach with local residents. These conversations enabled the team to receive organized feedback about the project and develop an ongoing dialogue with its major stakeholders. The process took time, but Nelson-Jean considered it one of her fundamental responsibilities as a public servant. By being transparent and demonstrating integrity, she achieved the public buy-in that enabled her to achieve her mission.
“It took a lot of relationship building, listening, and understanding what the resistance was and why that resistance was there,” she said. “That supported us moving forward with our national security and stockpile stewardship mission.”
Later, Nelson-Jean managed the Savannah River Site, which processes, stores and disposes of nuclear materials and oversees waste management and environmental cleanup initiatives.
The move put her in charge of a large plant complex for the first time in her career—a new role that required her to follow strict production schedules and timelines.
To succeed, Nelson-Jean sought constant feedback from her staff about how the plant operated and dedicated herself to learning about her employees. As a result, she gained a better understanding of her new work environment.
“The idea of being self-aware was immediate walking into that job because I had to seek feedback on what was going on around me and with my staff,” she said.
After nearly three decades of government service, Nelson-Jean finds herself in another critical role. In August 2020, she became a senior leader responsible for overseeing field operations for Energy’s Office of Environmental Management, a position that requires her to manage 16 field offices, a $7.5 billion budget and more than 33,000 employees. It is the largest administrative challenge of her career.
Nelson-Jean plans to use her passion for learning, self-reflective attitude and authentic communication style to forge the types of relationships and bonds that have sustained her career. For her, these qualities are critical to effective public service. “Being open to connections and relationships are what help us succeed in whatever we need to do—whether it’s nuclear nonproliferation or building a shelter for homeless children,” she said. “The earlier in your career that you understand how relationships play such a critical role in your success and your ability to get things done, the better off you are.”
From the story: How did Nicole demonstrate integrity to partner with stakeholders?
For reflection: Which relationships could you strengthen at work to help you do your job better?
For action: How might you create an environment and forum for others to continually give you feedback? What benefit would that have?