by: Thomas H. Little, Ph.D. and SLLF Director of Curriculum Development and Research
In recent weeks, leaders across the country have been gaveling their chambers to order for the 2021 legislative session. If history is an accurate indicator, about half of those leading these sessions will be new to their positions and many new to leadership. It is to these “newbies” that I offer these thoughts.
As you take up your new position, we humbly suggest that you are about to enter a world very different from the one you have come to know as a rank-and-file member. It comes with different rules, both formal and informal, new and more sophisticated tools and increasingly high expectations. We believe it would serve you well to know what you are about to get yourself into so you can be prepared: forewarned is forearmed as they say. So, here are some of the changes you can expect as you enter this new world as a speaker, president, pro tempore or floor leader in your legislative chamber.
When You Speak, People Listen. Most of you may be too young to remember the advertising slogan from the 1980s, “When E.F. Hutton talks, people listen,” but it should serve as a reminder of the new world you are now entering. When you were a new legislator, you may have felt like no one was listening to you. However, now that you are a leader, people hang on your every word. If you casually mention that you like an idea, it becomes part of the caucus agenda. If you make an “off the cuff” remark about a colleague, it races across social media platforms faster than Mario Andretti around the Brickyard. When you speak, people listen.
You’re a Genius! In January 2005, Rep. Rod Jetton became the second-youngest person ever elected to be Speaker of the Missouri House of Representatives. What he lacked in experience, he made up for in confidence, a quality that later led to some poor decisions and legal problems. In recounting his difficulties, Jetton noted that those around him fed his ego and assured him that whatever he said or proposed was always right. “I began to think I was a genius because those who wanted something from me told me so.” As a leader, there will be a lot of people feeding your ego and telling you that you are always right. It will be very easy to believe that you are infallible when everyone around you is telling you so.
The Buck Stops Here. President Truman famously had the sign “The Buck Stops Here!” on his desk in the Oval Office to remind himself (and others) that at the end of the day, he had to take responsibility for his actions and the actions of his administration. The same can be said for you in your new post. If you are the presiding officer, you, and you alone, decide who speaks, what is in order and where bills are assigned. If you are the floor leader, you are responsible for the actions and positions of your caucus. You can and should ask for advice and guidance from colleagues and experts, but the final decisions, and their consequences, lie with you.
Everybody Wants to Be Your Friend. When you first arrived at the legislature, you may have been a bit surprised by the number of people that wanted to get to know you better. Colleagues wanted to meet with you. Lobbyists wanted to take you out to dinner. You got a lot more “friend requests.” Well, buckle up. You are about to become as popular as a cold beer on a hot summer day. As a newly elected leader with more power, you are about to become more popular than you can imagine. Your phone will not stop ringing and will “blow up” with texts. You are about to get a lot more friends on Facebook and followers on Twitter than you ever imagined.
The Eyes Have It. As noted above, once you become a leader, people listen to everything you say. That’s not all. They also watch everything that you do. Your actions take on added importance. People take note of everything you do, good and bad (especially the bad). People will try to read something into your every action–a casual conversation with an old friend from the other party suddenly becomes a bipartisan coup. A private dinner with a longtime lobbyist friend suddenly becomes some kind of clandestine effort to hide something from the public. A few casual drinks at a local bar is reported as an all night bender. Everything you do will be analyzed and magnified.
Everybody’s Priest, Counselor and Therapist. Once you become a leader, for some reason, members want to share more information with you than you might want. You are now their best friend and they want to confide in you intimate details of their lives. They will come to you with their personal problems, ranging from marital issues to staff concerns to concerns about their own mental and/or physical health. Sometimes they want your help. Sometimes they just want you to listen. But all of the time, they want to know they have your ear and your confidence.
Different Priorities. As a rank-and-file legislator, your highest priority was to your conscience, your constituents and sometimes to your party. You really just had to worry about yourself, your goals and your re-election. As a leader, your range of obligations is much broader. Now, you must also be concerned about the fate and success of your members, your party, your chamber, your institution and your state. Obviously, you still must represent and take care of your district or you will not have the opportunity to lead. However, as a leader, your decisions and actions must reflect the broader constituencies to which you are now responsible
It is critical that you understand this different world so that you can avoid the pitfalls that have sidelined or detracted many of your colleagues in the past. In the pages that follow, we will offer insights and advice gleaned from legislative leaders with more than three hundred years of combined experience as legislative leaders. We hope you find it useful!