By Thomas H. Little, Ph.D.

As I sit wedged in a middle seat on a plane headed to the annual meeting of the National Conference of State Legislatures, I begin to ponder what it is that sets SLLF apart from this and other fine organizations and why, given their limited time and hectic schedules, legislative leaders come to our meetings in such increasingly impressive numbers.

Is it because our meetings offer an opportunity to hear from some of the best minds in the world on issues of leadership, politics and policy? Or is it because our programs provide a chance for legislators to reach across the aisle and talk candidly with people of other ideological and partisan stripes? And what about the fact that our meetings bring together leaders from the political and corporate communities, in an environment that encourages collaboration and problem solving bringing out the best in public/private partnerships?

All good stuff, but then it hit me­­­­–unlike almost every other aspect of a legislative leaders life, including well-organized and informative, but sometimes almost overwhelming, conferences like NCSL, CSG or ALEC, our meetings provide key legislative leaders with a rare gift: an opportunity to think!

I am reminded of a scene from one of my favorite movies, “Inherit the Wind,” (1960) in which legendary actors Spencer Tracy and Frederick March square off in the dramatic final courtroom scene. In response to a question from Tracy regarding his testimony, March responds, “I do not think about things I do not think about,” to which Tracy immediately replies, “But do you even think about things you do think about?”

The life of a legislative leader, especially during session, is jam-packed with obligations and responsibilities. He or she has not only to make sure the trains run on time, but also see that his or her caucus is content, constituent’s needs are met, and the affairs of the state are kept in some semblance of order. And, oh yeah, there is the next election to win and the majority to gain or maintain. On any given day, a legislative leader makes hundreds of important, even critical, decisions, often with little time to think about them, basing those decisions on gut, habit, experience, ideology, necessity or party.

When leaders attend SLLF meetings, they not only have the opportunity to delve deeply into critical issues of leadership and public policy, but they are able to do so in an atmosphere protected from the judgment of gotcha journalists, ideologically strident colleagues and constituents who cannot see past their own self interests and biases. Participants don’t flit from issue to issue, but instead, get to spend two days discussing and exploring a single topic with scholars, practitioners and corporate leaders assured that “what is said at SLLF stays at SLLF.”

They have time to think about what they can learn from members of the other party or someone with a different ideological perspective. They have time to think about what is working in other states and what might work in their own state. They have time to think about how their decisions, good and bad, influence the corporate community. They have time to think about their own leadership and how it can be harnessed and improved.

When participants, both corporate and legislative, leave our meetings, I believe they leave refreshed and recharged. They walk away with insights into leadership and public policy that come not from “skimming the surface,” but from digging deep into important issues, contemplating positions and implications and developing strategies to improve the quality of life for the people of their states. And, in the end, isn’t that what public service and true leadership is all about?