Key State Leadership Is About Focus


By Frank Shafroth, Director of the Center for State and Local Government Leadership

Having worked with elected leaders on three continents at every level of government, I remain awed at the patience, humility and humor that seems to distill the qualities of the best—or as one senate chairman said to me once: “Any day we can help one human being—anywhere in the world—is a good day … but if we can have fun doing it, it makes for a great day.”
Key state leadership is about focus—taking away partisanship and getting to the heart of the problem. Former U.S. Sen. George Voinovich of Ohio, who also served as a state legislator, mayor and governor, once told me he had struggled hard to try and determine how one could distinguish between a Republican versus a Democratic pothole. His view was always to try and understand the problem, what it would take to fix it, and who could help him fix it. 
For a newly elected—or appointed—state leader, especially a legislator, perhaps the most important steps to develop and build, or enhance, leadership skills involve organizing, intelligence, humor, keeping tabs, promises and building relationships.
Right away, after being elected, you want to organize on two fronts—creating an organization or caucus with those elected or selected to serve with your class and selecting staff. When I attended a session for newly elected governors, the very first admonition was to not select one’s campaign manager, but rather someone with deep knowledge, understanding and experience in the position to which one was elected or appointed. You want a key person on your staff who understands her or his responsibility is to any issue that affects more than one person in your district.
But organizing also has a very different task for you—proactively assuming responsibility for learning about your new body, what are the rules, written and unwritten? If there is not a formally organized opportunity available, be a leader, get your new colleagues on the phone and enlist them in organizing a session where you can not only begin to grasp the rules and procedures critical to your ability to be effective, but also where you can become a leader in your own caucus—a caucus that might well become an instrument for changes. Also, you need to form a critical support team as you try and learn how to leverage—or change—the rules of your new governmental institution.
These alliances and friendships are, as often as not, not partisan, but rather collective. If you have an interest in an issue, join a caucus that offers an opportunity to leverage new relationships—or to learn more about the issue and more about those with common interests. A new member’s cause can be effective in helping to organize, share interests and elect your own leaders—but also to offer leverage in receiving committee positions—and in developing friendships and alliances that cross regional, party and other kinds of barriers. That cause can be invaluable in enabling emerging leaders to grasp how colleagues are succeeding—or failing—both their constituents and themselves at a time when they are perhaps unfamiliar to the unwritten and written rules of the process. It offers you the first opportunity to take the lead on issues, and the kinds of skills and relationships that can enable a leader to make a difference—to be a creative force, respected and admired by her or his colleagues.
In a state legislature, in a court, or any other new level of state governance, one never wishes to take on a battle without reconnaissance. Just as the United States would never undertake a foreign military incursion without vital intelligence, so, too, learning and understanding the people and background of your new institution are critical.
My experience is that humor is perhaps one of the most important factors in leadership—both for your personal health and well-being, but also because it can be far more effective in dealing with your colleagues than confrontation. The first elected leader—a freshman—for whom I worked, came into our office in only her second week. She called me into her office, shut the door and told me she was expecting a call from the speaker of the House momentarily. I, of course, asked why she had gone over to the capitol to meet with the speaker and what the topic of her very first meeting was. She responded that she went over to ask why male members of Congress were able to use the swimming pool 24 hours a day, but female members only one. He responded that the rules only required suits to be worn one hour a day. I asked what she did next. She told him she understood that—and that she had even spoken to former Congresswoman Bella Abzug, and that the two of them were prepared to swim without suits themselves.
At this point, I interrupted to ask how the speaker reacted. She told me he turned a whiter shade of pale and said he would get back to her. She wanted me to be present in her office when he called, because she thought this would be an important leadership lesson.
Indeed, less than two minutes later, the phone rang. The call was brief. The speaker advised her that effective at midnight that night, the pool would henceforth be open to all members of the House 24 hours a day—and suits would be mandatory! But unlike some of her more feisty colleagues, the congresswoman had not held a press conference. No one else even was aware of the meeting—her first ever with the leader of the institution to which she had been elected.
What it did mean is that the speaker recognized that someone had achieved a precedent-setting change in the House through the deft use of humor and respect. And the respect was not only mutual—she directed me to alert her if any issue arose in our state in which the speaker’s assistance would be critical—but also led to a fundamental change in the institution, a change that cemented her position as a leader not just in her freshman class, but also amongst her colleagues.
An early—and ongoing job is to not only know who might be in a position to help you serve a constituent or meet a critical goal, but also what all the hurdles are that stand between you and achieving your goal. To me, it is a kind of scorekeeping. Which lawmaker—or staffer—might constitute a blockade or obstruction; what will it take to surmount that? Who is a doorkeeper? It is wise to keep a little notebook—with signatures—to be redeemed on matters important to your district and constituents.
It is a daunting challenge for a newly elected or selected state leader charged with protecting and responding to the often inchoate concerns of citizens to have any great certainty what steps are most critical and how most safely and rapidly to effect them. It is even a greater challenge in this era where emerging electronic media can lead to second guessing from citizens, especially in the millennial generation, who do not rely on traditional media. There are no easy answers to these challenges, but the construction of trust and respect with your new colleagues in your early days of new state responsibilities could prove invaluable.
Frank Shafroth is director of the Center for State and Local Government Leadership in the Centers on the Public Service at George Mason University. Shafroth’s grandfather was a law partner of Henry Toll, the founder of The Council of State Governments.