By Thom Little, Ph.D.

This past weekend, SLLF held its last meeting of the year, the Board Meeting and Leadership Roundtable, in beautiful Clearwater Beach, Florida. It is always a great time to look back on the previous year and forward to the year to come and to wish all of our friends a wonderful holiday season!

In addition to discussing past and future programs, we also bring in a keynote speaker to inform and inspire everyone and this year we were honored to hear from Dr. Douglas Bradburn, President and CEO of George Washington’s Mount Vernon. To “wet our whistle” for our upcoming program on the historical origins and challenges of representative democracy next year in Philadelphia. Dr. Bradburn engaged us in a lively conversation about the leadership of George Washington and how that leadership set the stage for the experiment in self governance that defines us still today.

One particular leadership quality noted by Bradburn caught my attention–Washington’s desire and ability to listen. While Washington would be the final decision maker, he generally made those decisions after listening to experts around him. He was not afraid to surround himself with capable people and to listen to them. As General Washington, he consulted a cadre of military colleagues including Marquis de Lafayette, Nathanial Greene, Henry Knox and Alexander Hamilton. As President Washington, he selected and consulted with one of the most capable Cabinets in American history in Adams, Jefferson, Knox and Hamilton. He sought out their advice and input before making decisions critical to the independence, creation and development of this nation. Further, he made all of his decisions with an eye cast toward public opinion and the precedent his action would set for future American leaders.

In discussing the importance of listening, Bradburn mentioned that perhaps instead of “Speaker of the House,” a more accurate title of the leader of the lower chamber might be “Listener of the House.”  That comment set me to thinking about just how important this skill is for leaders in today’s world and to whom they should (and should not) listen to, to be an effective state legislative leader.

The People. Obviously, in a republic, all elected representatives should listen to the people that elect them. However, for those elected to a leadership position in their chambers, the obligation to listen to the people goes beyond their district constituents. They must listen to and protect the interests of the entire state, not just those in their district. Often, this requires a discerning ear to distinguish between what is best for the people and what the people want. The dilemma that flustered Edmund Burke over two centuries ago still challenges listening leaders today.

The Caucus. Most legislative leaders are selected by and serve at the leisure of the members of their legislative caucuses. Majority leaders are chosen by the members of the majority caucus. Minority Leaders are chosen by members of the minority caucus. Even those presiding officers who are technically selected by the entire body are almost always nominated and elected to their posts by members of the majority caucus. Again, they have to balance what members of the caucus want with what might be in the best interest of the members and the state, but they must give an ear to those who “brung them to the dance.”

The Brain trust. With so many people desiring their attention and approval, it is very easy for state legislative leaders to get insulated in a “bubble of yes,” where everyone tells them all of their ideas are great and they are the “best thing since sliced bread.” To insure this does not happen, every legislative leader should have a few trusted friends, colleagues and or staff persons who are willing to tell them when they are wrong, moving in the wrong direction and “getting too big for their breeches!” If the leader is married, he or she may already have that person at home, but he or she needs that person (or persons) in the office or a phone call or text away. And, most importantly, the leader must be willing (and humble enough) to listen to these people when they tell the leader they are wrong.

The Voice in Your Head. Most of us have that little voice in our heads (that often sounds hauntingly like our mother or grandmother) that tells us the right thing to do. We usually know what we should do, but find it difficult to do it. The best leaders and the ones that “last” are those who refine and listen to that little voice, especially if it conforms to the other voices you need to listen to: the people, the caucus and those you trust. I would offer one caveat here– make sure that little voice is looking out for more than just you, but also for those you represent. As a good friend reminds me often, “We know you have to live with yourself, but we have to live with you too!” Don’t forget those you serve!

Good luck to “The Listener of the House!”