By Thomas H. Little, Ph.D. and SLLF Director of Curriculum Development and Research
In September of 2015 I wrote a blog I called Leading Millennial Matt.
In that blog, I referred fondly to Representative Matthew Wollman of South Dakota. I had just met him at SLLF’s Emerging Leaders Program, and felt he represented a new generation of young, engaged, and thoughtful legislators that would soon be taking legislatures by storm. I used “Millennial Matt” as a literary tool, to offer advice about leading this new generation.
Today, I am sad to use Representative Wollman once again to tell a story, and this time it is a cautionary tale.
In February, the 26 year-old Wollman, a former Marine on the edge of a promising political future, resigned from the South Dakota House of Representatives, days after admitting to having sexual relations with two college-aged legislative interns. As he resigned, just ahead of a House investigation into the allegations, Wollman said, “Human beings, unlike any other animal on this planet, are constantly reminded of their shortcomings, and pay for them two-fold. I do not condone what I have done. I have embarrassed this institution that I care so deeply for; my party; my family; my friends; and myself.”
As I contemplate the sad tale of my friend, I am struck by a couple of lessons that we all might learn.
Just Because Something is Legal Does Not Make it Right. All too often, we confuse legal with ethical, assuming that any legal behavior is acceptable behavior. In this case, because all parties were consenting adults and neither of the interns answered directly to Representative Wollman, he believed that he had done nothing wrong. There is no doubt that, if Representative Wollman’s claims of consent are accurate, his action violated no legislative rules. Indeed, his confession came just days after a Joint Committee on Procedure of the South Dakota Legislature voted down a proposed rule change that would prohibit sexual contact between lawmakers and interns or pages. Although his actions appear to be legal, they still derailed a promising political career, and caused significant embarrassment to Representative Wollman, his friends, his family, and other legislators.
Just Because You Can Do Something Does not Mean You Should Do Something. It is amazing how important you become once you get elected to the legislature, or to any other office where you are making decisions affecting thousands of people. Everyone, especially those wanting something from you, will remind you how important you are. One former Speaker who got into trouble, used to say, “I couldn’t make a mistake, because I was a genius – everybody told me so!” Once you are in a position to make key decisions, you can do a lot of things. Maybe you can help a friend get out of a speeding ticket. Maybe you can call an agency and help a constituent get a government contract. Or, perhaps you can get a date with that very attractive intern who works across the hall. Just because you can do it, does not mean you should do it.
Stop, Think and Listen. If you have any doubt about the morality or legality of what you are doing, STOP doing it. Don’t try to justify it. Don’t make excuses. (No one cares if your predecessor did the same thing). Just stop. If you are not sure whether something you are doing — or are about to do — is appropriate, THINK about it. Think about whether particular people will be unduly harmed or helped by your actions. Think about how you would explain your actions to your spouse, to your parents or kids, and to others you respect. Finally, as you consider your actions, LISTEN to those you trust and to those who are in a position to offer sound advice. If you have legal counsel, consult and trust that person. If you have trusted aides who you know have your back, ask them what they think, and take their answers seriously. Make sure that you have someone (or many someones) close to you who is/are willing to tell you what you might not want to hear. And then listen to them.
Some people have to learn lessons the hard way, by making the mistakes themselves. My suggestion: don’t be one of those people. Learn from the mistakes of others. Let Millennial Matt’s story save you some trouble.