by Thom Little, Ph.D.

My wife and I are now officially empty nesters. This year, our youngest daughter started college. She is a first year (they don’t call them freshmen) at Mr. Jefferson’s university, the University of Virginia. She has always done very well in school (all she got from me was her height), so we were a bit taken aback when we received the following text during her first full week of classes: “College is hard!” As any parent would, we acknowledged the challenge is real, gave her encouragement and tried to offer tips for success.

As I thought more about her words and her concerns, I began to realize that she was wrong. College is not, by definition, hard – it is only hard if you want to do it well. If you just want to go to college to have fun, socialize and skate by, it is not hard. However, if you want to get good grades, understand and retain the course information and prepare for your future, then college is indeed hard.

Leadership is no different. Leaders, especially “first years” will tell you that leadership is hard. I hear it every two years at our New Speaker Orientation: “I did not know I was going to have to be everybody’s counselor.” “The right-wing or left-wing media watches me like a hawk.” “Everybody wants something from me.” “I have been in leadership. I thought I understood this job. I was wrong.”

I would suggest that leadership, like college, is hard only if you want to do the right things the right way for the right reasons. If you are only interested in keeping your members and constituents content, it is not that hard. If you are willing to take procedural or ethical shortcuts to get your way, it is not that hard. If you are willing to “kick the can down the road” instead of taking on the problems that face your state, it is not that hard.

However, if you want to be a leader who leaves his or her positive and lasting mark on the state, and the legislative institution, it is hard. Anything of real value is hard. So, if the goal of leadership is to do the right things the right way for the right reasons, we need to examine each component of such leadership.

The Right Things. New leaders always find that the job is broader and more consuming than they ever imagined, and yet, they too only have 24 hours in a day just like the rest of us. They cannot do everything, so where should their focus lie? First, they must lead their chamber to address the important public policy challenges facing their states: education, infrastructure, tax fairness, health care, etc. Second, they must honor and protect the legislative institution that they lead by upholding its rules and norms, maintaining its independence and encouraging its members to treat each other with respect. Finally, a true legislative leader must do everything within  his or her power to uphold the U.S. Constitution, particularly our Constitution’s clear provisions for: an independent and responsible press, fair and transparent elections, a strong and effective legislative institution and states capable of balancing the power of national government. If a leader will focus on these things instead of worrying about currying favor with the executive, trying to make every member happy or making decisions focused on short term gains just to win the next election, he or she will be a true leader and remembered as such.

The Right Way. History tells us that there are many ways to lead a legislature. Some lead with an iron fist, using the rules and powers to control the agenda, the process and the policies. This leader is fine until there is a chink in the armor and everyone abandons him or her. Some seem to lead by not leading at all – letting their committee chairs and subordinates make key decisions and just ratifying what they do. This leader is not really a leader and leads a ship with no rudder. An effective leader is somewhere between these two. Leading the right way means providing guidance and direction, but allowing and encouraging members to be part of the agenda setting and decision making processes. Leading the right way means selecting and mentoring members who can help you make good decisions and develop good policy. Leading the right way means appointing people to committees where their skills, knowledge and abilities can be effectively utilized. Leading the right way means working with the executive branch when possible but standing up the the executive branch when necessary. Leading the right way means applying the rules of the institution fairly to all members and eschewing procedural shortcuts that damage the integrity of the institution. And always, the most effective leader will be that person who when the moment demands, can present himself as a nonpartisan arbiter of disputes between colleagues from both parties. These leaders will have the support of their members, both Democratic and Republican, when the institution or their leadership are challenged and they will be remembered favorably by history for a job well done and fairly done.

The Right Reasons. When I think of the challenges facing today’s legislative leaders, I think of the words of the late Rodney Dangerfield, “All my son wanted for Christmas was a BB gun, so I got him one and my  son got me a shirt with a bull’s eye on the back!”

In most states legislative leaders are not paid that much more than rank-in-file members and they often don’t have significantly greater staff, but they almost always do have significantly more powers, along with the attendant pressures and challenges that come with being the boss. So, why would anyone want this job anyway?

I think the answer is simple. You want the job because you think you can do it well and you value public service and helping others above all else. I think I have this right because I have seen examples of this kind of pure leadership many times in the halls of state capitols from one corner of the country to the other (islands included!).

There are wrong reasons to want to be the top dog in the legislature: power, prestige, special treatment. These are all some would say, inherent traits in most of us, and more pronounced in those of us who aspire to leadership.  These traits may play their proper role so long as they never become substitutes for the core person you are who got you to here in the first place!

The best leaders are those who seek leadership (or have it thrust upon them) because they want to make a difference in their state – they want to make laws and pass policies that improve the quality of life for the peoples of their state. The best leaders are those who seek leadership not because they want the power or the prestige, but because others who recognize their skills and abilities have encouraged them to run. The best leaders are those who are dedicated to leading with the integrity and honor that the legislative institution deserves, abiding not only by the laws and rules of the institution, but by the vales that have made this nation great.

In conclusion, if you want to be a great leader, I offer you the same advice that my wife and I offered our daughter: we know that this is difficult, but we believe you possess the skills, strength and abilities to do it. And, by the way, we are counting on you!