John Koskinen ’64

Leading in a Crisis


headshot of John Koskinen

John Koskinen is known in some circles as “Mr. Fixit” because he has spent most of his career dealing with crises or organizations under stress.

With half of his experience in government and the other half in the private sector, Koskinen has been tapped to turn around troubled enterprises in the private sector as well as oversee government crises in the public sector.

Prior to his retirement in 2017, Koskinen served in three presidential administrations to manage challenges as varied as the Year 2000 challenge (commonly known as Y2K), IRS scandals, and the 2008 financial crisis.

Koskinen served as the 48th Commissioner of the IRS under President Obama. At the time of his confirmation, the IRS was in the middle of multiple investigations. It was alleged that the IRS was targeting conservative organizations who sought tax-exempt status after the passage of the Affordable Care Act. The inspector general’s investigation determined that there was a management failure at the agency.

Under the George W. Bush administration, Koskinen served as Non-Executive Chairman of the Board for Freddie Mac during the 2008 financial crisis and helped restructure operations to stabilize the organization. He also simultaneously served as interim CEO, COO, and CFO for six months.

When concerns were raised on how computers would handle the date change to the year 2000, the Clinton administration asked Koskinen, who had just left the Administration after serving as Deputy Director for Management at the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), to return to the White House as Assistant to the President and Chair of the President’s Council on the Year 2000 Conversion. His new challenge was to manage the transition of the government, the nation, and the world into the new century. He was also at the helm at OMB during the 1995 three-week government shutdown — the longest government shutdown in history at that time.

Koskinen said it doesn’t matter the amount of experience someone has or how much they know about a subject when trying to deal with a problem. Inevitably, he said, others will highlight an aspect of a problem or see a solution that you otherwise would miss. 

“The worst outcome is to feel, ‘I wish I had thought of that,’” said Koskinen. “Even with all the complexities and pressures on the IRS and the Commissioner, by involving a range of people in the decision-making process, I never had that subsequent regret. My experience is that a group of people will always come up with a better, more complete solution than any member of the group acting alone."

Koskinen served as Deputy Mayor and City Administrator for the District of Columbia during crises including 9/11, the 2001 anthrax attacks, and the D.C. sniper attacks of 2002. His challenge was to keep city departments running smoothly while helping to reassure staff and the public.

“In almost all of my crisis management positions the biggest obstacles have been the lack of time and the shortage of funds,” said Koskinen. “When you are managing a financially troubled company, you often don’t have time for a six-month consultant study. Decisions have to be made quickly on the basis of the best information available.”

The best way to find out what’s going on in a company or organization when leading in a crisis, according to Koskinen, is to talk to the people actually doing the work. He said they may not have all the solutions, but they can give leaders a clear picture of what’s happening and the obstacles they face.

Koskinen said his legal education equipped him to analyze and understand a wide range of legal issues. His legal career gave him the confidence he needed when confronting complicated factual situations.

“Whether it was courses in contracts, constitutional law, real property, or taxes, I was always comfortable when issues in those and other areas arose,” said Koskinen.

When considering the breadth of his career, Koskinen said, “The moral of the story in my career is to do your best in everything you do, because those you run across may play an important role in your career in the years ahead. You should always be open to new opportunities or challenges even if it’s not clear where they will lead you.”

Koskinen graduated with a bachelor’s degree in physics, from Duke University and earned his L.L.B. from Yale Law School. He also studied international law at Cambridge University. In 2021 he was inaugurated into the Government Hall of Fame.

He currently serves on the Board of the National Academy of Public Administration where he is a fellow, the Sigma Chi Foundation Board, and the Board of the Virginia/DC Soccer Hall of Fame.