By: Thom Little, Ph.D.

In late August, 2018, Speakers of the House from more than half of the fifty states gathered in Milwaukee, Wisconsin for the 27th Annual Meeting of the National Speakers Conference (NSC) hosted by the Honorable Robin Vos, President of the NSC and Speaker of the Wisconsin House of Representatives. The program faculty included historian and author Doris Kearns Goodwin, political analyst Charlie Cook, US House Speaker Paul Ryan, former White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, Millennial spokesperson Steven Olikara, futurist Charlie Grantham and corporate executive Alan Yeung. Led by this stellar line up, program participants talked about people, politics, policies and Presidents.

People. In a representative democracy, leaders must, if they want to remain in power, stay close to and understand the people they are elected to represent and lead. According to Goodwin, this is one of the key components of effective leadership exhibited by successful Presidents. Lincoln spent time with the soldiers. Teddy Roosevelt took strolls among the people. FDR held evening parties with friends and colleagues. However, according to Steven Olikara and Charlie Grantham, the interests and desires of those people are changing as Millennials and Gen X’ers demand different things from policymakers, candidates and bosses. Today’s leaders must understand the motivations and interests of younger voters if they are to be effective.

Politics. You really cannot have a gathering of America’s top political leaders and not talk about politics and we didn’t! Reince Priebus gave us an inside glimpse into the Trump White House, suggesting that while its structures and processes might be unorthodox, they were nonetheless effective. In a similar manner Speaker Paul Ryan walked participants through the politics of some of the political successes and failures of the current US Congress. Finally, Charlie Cook offered his very educated perspective on the 2018 Congressional elections and the political landscape for 2020, suggesting that while the 2020 Presidential race is wide open, Democrats have the edge (especially in the US House) going into the midterm elections. Finally, Goodwin reminded us that effective Presidents have to be astute students of effective politics or they do not stay in office.

Policies. Politics may win elections, but policies solve problems. Voters, especially younger voters, want less politics and more policies, according to Steven Olikara. They want government to step up and do its job, focus on solving the many problems facing their state or nation. Having come of political age during the Great Recession, they tend to be fiscally conservative, but socially liberal. Priebus and Ryan explained some of the policy positions and successes put forth by their party and Cook talked about how those policies might play out in the 2018 and 2020 elections. Corporate Executive Alan Yeung reminded the participants that policy decisions have a big impact on economic development and the bottom line for corporate America.

Presidents. While participants at this program lead their states, everything they do and that happens in their states is affected by the national government and the Presidents who lead it. Historian Goodwin offered participants some wonderful insights into effective leadership that they can glean from Presidents Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson including the importance of humor, the value of staying connected to the people, the significance of mastering the communications of the day and the necessity of learning from one’s mistakes. As someone who worked in the Trump White House, Priebus shared information about the complex, sometimes chaotic, but nonetheless effective decision making process within the Administration.

You may notice that while we talked about four P’s (people, politics, policies and presidents), one “P” which more often than not dominates such meetings these days is noticeably missing– political parties. That is because the National Speakers Conference and its host organization, the State Legislative Leaders Foundation, are intentionally bipartisan. Speakers from both parties attend and are encouraged to “leave their party labels at the door.” What they find, inevitably, is that their challenges as Speakers of the House unite them much more than their party labels divide them. They build friendships across party lines and have conversations that transcend ideological and regional differences and that is lesson that we could all stand to learn!