Growing up in Santa Cruz, Calif., Antonette M. Zeiss, PhD, spent many days playing by the Pacific Ocean with her two brothers.
There, her mother, Adele Wood, advised her: "Never turn your back on a wave. If you turn around, face the wave, dive under it and don't be afraid of it," she said, "you won't get hurt."
Zeiss later came to see that advice as a metaphor for handling any challenge. As a leader at the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), she's faced plenty of waves, first as a trainer of psychology interns and postdocs at the Palo Alto VA, from 1982 to 2005, then, as deputy chief consultant for mental health services in the VA Central Office in Washington, D.C. In that latter role, she is often a press spokesperson for VA mental health nationally and she has numerous responsibilities for implementing the VA's Mental Health Strategic Plan, a program for upgrading VA mental health services, recommended by President Bush's New Freedom Commission on Mental Health.
"I go home almost every day feeling like the waves are coming fast!" Zeiss says. "You have these big things coming at you, but if you face them, join with them, respond to them, most things are manageable." For instance, Zeiss must regularly answer questions from the press about VA-related mental health issues that can be controversial; and as a postdoc and intern trainer, she had to resolve a few uncomfortable situations, for example regarding students' alleged unethical behavior with clients.
Her mother proffered two other nuggets of wisdom that Zeiss-also a seminal researcher in older-adult development-has kept in mind.
One was explicit: Be responsible for your own actions and conflicts. When Zeiss and her brothers argued, for example, her mother would tell them to work it out themselves and report back the results. "That advice has been enormously helpful because being able to work out conflicts is a huge part of leadership," Zeiss says.
Her mother never verbalized the third piece of advice, but Zeiss learned through observation: Be nice. Some female postdocs she's shared this tip with have feared that "niceness" might connote "weakness." However, Zeiss disagrees. "I think you can be caring and warm and remain a colleague and leader."
The strategy has advanced Zeiss's career, she believes, by helping her build good relationships with colleagues and students. Then, they can work together to effectively accomplish tasks.
Her colleagues concur. In May, Zeiss received an APA Presidential Citation recognizing her leadership contributions both in APA and VA. And last year, Zeiss won an APA Committee on Aging (CONA) Award for her contributions in geropsychology-including her finding that depression is not a normative part of aging.
In conferring the award, CONA Chair Toni Antonucci, PhD, described Zeiss's effect on geropsychologists in training. They have been "profoundly affected," she said, "by her remarkable strength of character, personal values, superior clinical skills, exceptional intellect and personal warmth."