Lessons Learned from Successful Public Leaders
I wrote this book to share my personal leadership experiences along with the experiences in both failure and achievement of successful public leaders in government. I have spent a lot of time with public leaders who hold various positions from city managers to the governorship, and I have gained invaluable knowledge and insight from all the leaders I interviewed for this project.
This project manifest to me that leadership is a process whereby the leader can influence and motivate others to perform beyond expectations. I found this to be true over and over again from each leader I interviewed. Th eir influences were so profound that all the problems and challenges of their organization were solved based on the influence they had on their people. As I often say to colleagues, leadership has always fascinated me even as a young boy watching my father as he provided leadership to his staff on a federal government-run agricultural farm in Africa. I was exposed to his leadership responsibilities during summer holidays where I always did some manual field work planting or harvesting corn. I saw how my father’s influence impacted the workers, and it was then I decided to go to college so that I could fill some management role as well. I loved the idea of using my brain to make a living instead of manual labor. As a matter of fact, I like to delegate.
My fascination with leadership grew aft er I earned my fi rst degree. I got a job through an employment agency in Spokane, Washington. I worked in a food processing plant in Othello, Washington, as Quality Assurance Director. I was responsible for the Quality Control lab and the Bacteriology Lab to ensure the safety of food products. With no prior management experience, I was responsible for managing a staff of twelve people. Later I was assigned the additional responsibility of managing the safety and hazardous waste program, with no additional staff . This was a very trying time for me. There I was, managing people many years older than me who had a limited command of the English language, which created more diffi culties for me. I did not know how to motivate them, hold them significantly accountable, or infl uence their performance and effectiveness. I operated by trial and error until I was able to fi gure things out on my own. My leadership skills were tested on several occasions at the food processing plant, but perseverance pulled me through what turned out to be a bit an ordeal as far as jobs go, and I don’t regret the experience. It was indeed a character builder.
I can look back now and see all the mistakes I made. One example of the challenges I faced was with one of my day shift sanitation foremen, Jesus. Jesus was very fluent in Spanish, and his presence in the plant was extremely valuable, but his general performance level was questionable. I tried to counsel and provide him with guidance but to no avail. I discussed the situation with my boss who had a very low tolerance for insubordination and he gave me the go ahead to fire Jesus. With great trepidation I did so, knowing full well that he was capable of doing me harm if efficiently provoked. He was in fact so mad that he threatened to kill me. So there I was, with a six-month-old daughter, my wife away in college, and, more significantly, one of only a few Black people in town. (Othello was a very small town with only two Black families at that time that I know of). Perhaps you can fully appreciate my situation being in a town where you hardly see anybody that looks like you except your own daughter. That in itself is a fascinating story, about which I would like to write about some day.
Th e firing of Jesus was so scary for me that I had to seek protection from the Sheriff ’s offi ce. The good news was that his threats did not materialize, but it was ironic that I ran into him again several years later when I was working in a State Correctional Facility as the safety manager. I was surprised to see Jesus at the prison, and he was surprised to see me, too. At first he pretended not to see me, but I called out his name, and he responded. I asked him why he was in prison, and he told me it was because he murdered his girlfriend while under the influence of drugs. I must say I was not surprised at hearing this. I was not afraid of him anymore because of the security guards around, but I did all I could to avoid him throughout my tenure with the state Department of Corrections.
My goal in writing this book is for the readers to learn from the mistakes and the challenges I endured throughout my career as a public service employee, and also to learn from the challenges and wisdom of the public leaders featured in the case studies.
I regret that I was unable to fully enjoy what I was doing in my earlier leadership roles in state government, but most certainly I am doing so now that I’m older and wiser.
One point I want to be clear about is: public leadership is a noble path, and I encourage those of you who are passionate about leadership to seek the opportunity to serve the public good through public service. This compilation of the many years of experience and challenges from successful public leaders that I interviewed for this project will defi nitely enlighten you and provide inspirational hope and encouragement for you to succeed in your public service leadership quest.
Interviews with the Leaders
The leaders interviewed for this project range in ages and were selected based on their leadership reputation of being authentically successful in their different areas of responsibilities. It was a diverse group of men and women with an array of racial and socioeconomic backgrounds. Among them are:
Governor Christine Gregoire—Washington State Governor;
Ron Sims—County Executive;
Congressman Norm Dicks—United States of America Congress;
John Ladenburg—County Executive;
Eric Anderson —City Manager;
Brian Sonntag—State Auditor;
Dr. Mark Emmert—University President;
Governor Gary Locke;
Dr. Robin Arnold-Williams—State Social and Health Services Secretary;
Sam Reed—State Secretary of State;
Tim Farrell—Executive Port Director;
Harold Clarke—Commissioner of State Prisons;
Ethelda Burke—School District Superintendent;
Payt McCarth—County Auditor;
Cary Bozeman—City Mayor; and
Dr. George Dennison—University President.
These public leaders were very helpful with my project, and I would like to share with you a summary of what I learned from them.
King County Executive, Washington State
ing County Executive Ron Sims has built his career in public service around the progressive principles of social justice, good government, and environmental stewardship. He has a national reputation for boldness and vision, and is a champion of reforming government processes to better serve the people of the dynamic, forward-thinking Puget Sound region of Washington State.
Sims has taken a leadership role on a range of issues, and has compiled a notable list of accomplishments. During his three terms as County Executive, Sims has established a strong record of environmental protection. An ardent conservationist, Sims has protected more than 100,000 acres of green space in King County since 1997 and increased the county’s trails to 175 miles. His Climate Plan, which is aimed at reducing and adapting to the effects of global warming, is lauded as one of the most comprehensive in the nation. In May of 2007, Sims, along with actor/environmentalist Robert Redford, was among six individuals given the Climate Protection Award from the Environmental Protection Agency. He has also been recognized nationally for his leadership on a regional effort to stop the degradation of Puget Sound and to restore runs of the prized Chinook salmon, declared threatened under the Endangered Species Act in 1999. Sims has been a regional leader on managing growth in the economically booming King County region by driving smart, comprehensive strategies to reduce traffic congestion. His regional public/private partnership to reform health care through the Puget Sound Health Alliance is seen as a national model. And the King County employee health initiative, which ties participation in wellness activities to out-of-pocket expense levels, is designed to cut escalating health care costs by tens of millions of dollars within fi ve years.
His ability to work successfully across diverse constituencies was vividly illustrated by prestigious awards from both the Master Builders of King and Snohomish Counties and the Urban League of Metropolitan Seattle in 2006. Nationally, his propensity to push for innovative solutions earned him a Public Official of the Year Award from Governing Magazine and a national award from the Sierra Club. He was also named 2006 Husband of the Year by Seattle Magazine.
After graduating from Central Washington University, Sims worked on consumer protection issues at the Washington State Attorney General’s office and the Federal Trade Commission. Recruited to run the City of Seattle’s juvenile offender program, Ron remained head of the program until becoming a legislative aide in the Washington State Senate.
In 1985, Ron was first elected to the King County Council. In 1996 he was appointed King County Executive and was re-elected by wide margins in 2001 and 2005. As County Executive, he is charged with overseeing the 13th largest county in the nation. It includes the city of Seattle, and with an overall population of 1.8 million, King County is home to about 30 percent of Washington state’s population and alone accounts for more than 40 percent of the state’s jobs. The county government has a workforce of over 13,000 and an annual budget of $4.4 billion.
Th e Conversation
Solomon: Please describe your leadership philosophy and how it guided your ability to lead successfully in public and private environments.
Ron: I think that people who are put in prominent positions are supposed to lead and set an agenda. My assumptions are that society is not static, it’s dynamic, and that the only way to improve society is to assume the responsibility of being a leader. Everybody has their role and their purpose, and I believe that being the County Executive, or even being on the County Council are examples of being put in positions where you could improve the quality of life of every person.
Leadership requires risk. I don’t believe that you can lead safely. Leaders have the capacity either to be in front of or support an issue. Sometimes it requires you to be the first up the hill, and people will follow you. Other times, it requires you to empower others. So I don’t believe there is a common template for a leader; I don’t think there’s a common strategy. I tell people that the most important thing that a leader does is to provide confidence in others and also provide the ability to make change in a positive way. And then you alter your tools to achieve that.
Sometimes you’re out in front, and sometimes you’re behind. Sometimes you’re just the inspiration, sometimes you’re the motivator, sometimes you’re the back-patter, sometimes you’re the person who comes in, in the middle of a crisis, and gets everybody calmed down, and then says, “move ahead.” But I think that leadership comes in many forms. An effective leader uses a variety of different approaches to lead. But again, your goal is a simple one—to improve people’s quality of life.
But society, as a whole, does not welcome change, never has and never will. Human beings don’t like change. We all feel very comfortable when the status quo is maintained. It provides predictability and certainty to us. But, the status quo is like a grape without water, it just dries up. Societies that have failed to embrace change have regretted it; they have neglected their capacity to have change. Fascist societies don’t like change. Any dictatorship doesn’t like change. But the history of humans shows us that those societies have failed over time, and they will continue to fail. People, for whatever reasons, don’t like change. At the same time, they appreciate it.
Solomon: Please give me one strong leadership philosophy that you have adopted throughout your career in leadership positions.
Ron: How would I boil it down? Well, I believe leaders improve the quality of life for people by taking risks. That’s my philosophy. I’ve been baffled by discussions of leadership, because people say, “Well, a leader is ‘this.’” You know, “A leader is John F. Kennedy Jr.” “A leader is Martin Luther King Jr.” “A leader is Bobby Kennedy.” “A leader is Mahatma Gandhi.” People look at the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and say he was a leader. But look at him. He was an intellectual who had the power of words. And he got around people who had different approaches. If you look at the life of Dr. King, you don’t see him using a single strategy ever. He used multiple strategies. Mahatma Gandhi used multiple strategies. You can say, well no, they used civil disobedience. But the civil disobedience was required because the system wasn’t embracing the change. But they empowered people to believe that on their own they could bring about the change. So, people always say, well a leader is “this,”—they have in their minds and their eyes what a leader is.
I simply say a leader is a person who provides confidence to other people, that they can obtain changes that will improve their quality of life. It’s really that simple. A leader of a corporation is somebody who successfully is able to motivate not only the managers of their corporation, but also the employees of their corporation, to produce a better widget that people will buy. But every leader who is effective has a quiver full of approaches that they use.
As I said earlier, sometimes it’s empowering, sometimes it’s being up-front, sometimes it’s being behind. But the goal is always the same. People then feel that they can achieve an improvement in their quality of life.
Solomon: Great! Next question: Please describe a time when you had to make a final call on a controversial public policy issue: What were your considerations? How did you approach the situation? How did you manage the stakeholders? What was the outcome and what leadership traits did you use the most to manage this situation?
Ron: That’s easy. Let me tell about the one we had last year that was a very “hot-button” issue. I was being asked by a variety of people to issue marriage licenses to people who were of the same sex. That was all, period. And I will tell you about the process that evolved. It was a very hot issue in this county, a very emotional issue, with a large number of people who had feelings one way or another— a very controversial issue. And I refused to issue the marriage licenses.
But here’s what I did. I met with our attorneys, and I said, “Can I issue the marriage licenses?” And they said, “No, you cannot issue licenses because it’s illegal for you to do that. And if you do issue the licenses, you’re subject to recall as the county executive.” So I said, “Well, I don’t want to be recalled.” And I knew I didn’t have the capacity to do it lawfully. I asked why we should issue a symbolic license that would be rejected by the courts as soon as they’re issued. Why make a symbolic statement, when the goal is to make an effective policy change of same-sex marriage. So I asked the attorneys if “I can sue myself?” And the answer is “No, it’s really difficult to sue yourself.” But I thought about another idea, which is to have others sue me. So we went to the Northwest Women’s Law Center, to a friend of mine by the name Bradley Bagshaw, and said, “I need to be sued for the refusal to issue marriage licenses to people of the same sex.”
And we needed to orchestrate that. We needed to have a client pool, a plaintiff pool of people who would look just like anybody’s neighbor, such as lawyers, stockbrokers, ministers, doctors, teachers, and finance people. But I wanted people who the public couldn’t have a disdain for. I wanted them to be able to say, “These people are like my neighbors.”
My office worked at creating a plaintiff ’s pool, along with the Northwest Women’s Law Center, who did an incredible job (Lisa Stone), and they brought in the Legal Foundation, which was opposed to it, quite frankly. Some of the gay legislators were also opposed to it as well.
I remember a crucial Saturday phone call that I made, where I was told that the pressure was being brought on Northwest Women’s Law Center to not go forward with the lawsuit by the Legal Foundation, and by some very powerful gay legislators. And I said to Lisa, “This issue isn’t to be decided on an agenda other than the full constitutional rights of individuals who are entitled to join. And there comes a point in all of our lives where there is a ‘Y’ in the road, and that ‘Y’ in the road is, do we move forward, or do we retreat.” And I said, “It seems to me that there is no good time or perfect situation to bring this action up, so we must continue the process.”
I said to them, “For one, I want to be sued. I encourage you to sue me. And we’ve been working very hard to do this. And now is not the time for us to even consider to retreat.” And that’s all she needed to go forward. And then the Legal Foundation came on board as well because it did not want to be outside this lawsuit. The leadership of the Northwest Women’s Law Center was fantastic, and one attorney in particular, Lisa Stone.
We then brought about an action that was simple, which we orchestrated. We had the press show up and watch me open the door to the King County’s Division of Licenses, for people to walk in, knowing full well that they would be refused their licenses anyway. We knew that but I was going to be significant in the process because I was going to open the doors to the opportunity for people to be married. We knew they were going to be denied their licenses, and we had a press conference, and at that press conference I said I was going to be sued. I heard I was going to be sued, and the plaintiffs got up and said, “Yes, we are going to sue him (the King County Executive), and here’s why.”
And the press interviewed the plaintiffs live, so we were able to place the faces of same-sex marriage couples in the newspapers and on TV. And they sued.
We worked with the Prosecutor’s Office so that we’d have no stalling tactics, no motions to kill the case, and there were no delays in the case. We proceeded through, not with any hot rhetoric, not with any vendettas or anything, but the Prosecutors defending what they believed was a popular position, that only heterosexuals should get married. We worked through the Superior Court system here in King County, and then it was appealed, as expected, through the state Supreme Court. Again, we fought off anybody’s desire to have delays. We said it was inappropriate for us to be engaged in any activity that would delay the proceedings on procedural grounds. And the case was heard. As of now we are awaiting the decision.
Now, there are several things going on here, and one thing is that I will not break the law. I just want to go back to Dr. King’s “Letters from the Birmingham Jail.” Dr. King was in Birmingham, Alabama, and people were saying, “You lawbreaker. Look at you. You’ve been thrown in jail because you broke the law.” And he said, “No, actually.” And he worked through the religious community. He said, “I’m not breaking the law. Th e law says that segregation is over. But there are people still enforcing the law. They’re the lawbreakers. I’m not the law breaker.” I remembered that. I said, “Wow, people are always focusing on his speech on the march on Washington,” which I thought was a great speech, but his ‘Letters From The Birmingham Jail’ is far more powerful than anything else he wrote— remember he was a philosophy major. He wrote his doctoral degree in philosophy, he was first in his class. He was brilliant. Those are a brilliant series of theses on leadership and responsibility, particularly moral responsibility.
So I said that I thought that I was breaking the law by not granting the marriages, because I thought that the Constitution of the State of Washington, being bold and generous,— that the Supreme Court would conclude that we, in fact, should grant people of the same sex the right to marry. But I wasn’t going to break the law to get there. I wasn’t going to be the person out there saying, I’m just going to do something illegal. I still have a responsibility to uphold the laws of the state of Washington. And until there’s a Supreme Court case, I had to uphold those laws. And so I did. I upheld the law by denying the marriage licenses.
I disagreed with the outcome, which is why I had myself sued, because I believe in marriage equality. But that was an example of taking on an issue, in which there was a tremendous amount of emotion. I mean, I’m telling you, there were people—columnists in the paper, not only Th e Stranger, but also the Seattle Times, who were ridiculing me. A columnist went after me. “Why isn’t Ron Sims showing the leadership that’s being shown in Portland, Oregon, and San Francisco” and grant the same sex marriage licenses?
Well, what happened in Portland and San Francisco? Th e marriage licenses issued were pulled back; it left a very bad taste in people’s minds, and most states have moved to deny, constitutionally, the right of same sex people to be married. That hasn’t taken place here, or even in Massachusetts. It was just done differently. My approach was to say; “I respect the law until the court rules. I will be law-abiding Executive.”
Ironically, after we brought the lawsuit, I have never seen more people take credit for it, and you know they take credit for everything.
A good leader knows the parameters they to have to work within. A good leader knows, in fact, what you have to change and how you have to change it. And good leaders maintain a series of abiding moral and personal principles that they move forward on. They don’t do anything we call out-of-character, they don’t do anything that would be unexpected.
This was a very serious controversial issue. But that’s what leaders do. So I look at people who are gays and lesbians, who simply said, we want to exercise the right to be married. I’d like to say, “Fine.” Is it a moral issue with me? I have very deep religious feelings, and I separate the two, because there is that practiced by civil law, which has got to be separate from what I call religious practice. I tell people I will not marry them even if we prevail. I will not marry them because my church does not allow me to marry people of the same sex, and I will not violate the canons of my faith.
So there’s a personal dynamic too that was getting into play, and there were people saying, “Well, you’re Black, and you’re saying the discrimination against people whose sexual preference is probably going to be unknown unless they make it public.” And I said discrimination in any form is unacceptable, it dehumanizes any of us. None of us owns civil rights. None of us owns constitutional rights. None of us owns civil liberties. The loss of any of those affects all of us in some way or another. We’re a little less good as a society, and as a country, and as a nation, as a state, and as a county, if anybody’s rights are impaired. Leaders know that, and they fight that, and it proves to be very difficult at times. But that’s what a leader does. Now that was a different kind of leadership. And whether we win or lose, I will have known that I was standing up not for my personal beliefs, not for what Ron Sims thought was right, but for the rights of other people.