Governor Gary Locke’s Remarks
Leadership Development Program—Community Colleges of Spokane
May 20, 2004
Good afternoon. I am honored to be here.
I’d like to start by congratulating this year’s 16 graduates of the Leadership Development Program. And congratulations to Community Colleges of Spokane for creating this important program.
I’m humbled by this opportunity to share my views on leadership. Warren Bennis, a prolific writer on the topic, once observed that after decades of academic research and thousands of empirical studies, there are more than 350 published definitions of leadership. Yet there is no clear understanding of what distinguishes leaders from non-leaders. As Bennis concluded, “Never have so many labored so long to say so little.”
Leadership is an enigma. We can’t easily define it, but we know it when we see it. Yet what we each perceive as good leadership is intensely individual and personal. And if I asked each of you to name the five greatest leaders of all time, all your answers would be different.
The concept of leadership is relative, highly subjective, and very elusive. And I don’t pretend to be any more of an expert than anyone else. But I can tell you what I’ve learned, and what I believe.
I believe good leadership is characterized by at least four key qualities.
First, leaders have a vision that informs how they lead and the decisions they make. It may not be easily articulated or always apparent. But most leaders are driven by a vision of the world, community or company as they think it should be.
My vision, for example, focuses on opportunity. I have priorities—education, economic development, health care, sustainability and the environment, and efficient government. If we are successful in advancing these individual priorities, we will be well-educated, we will have jobs and economic security, high quality and affordable health care, and a pristine environment.
But for me, there is something even greater to be gained. If we successfully pursue our top priorities, we will be well on the road toward developing what I call an “opportunity culture.”
Such a culture is characterized by an inherent and strong sense of equality. It encourages the pursuit of personal fulfillment and growth. People can achieve a brighter future and better life if they are willing to learn and work hard. There is a strong sense of community and volunteerism. People help each other and take care of each other.
This vision of an opportunity culture lies behind the priorities I am most interested in advancing. These priorities are not just the ends themselves—they are the means by which we can realize the vision of an opportunity culture in our state.
Second, I believe leadership grows out of core personal values that inform every leader’s daily work and long-term vision.
In my family, three specific values are very important: hard work, a good education, and taking care of each other.
My parents owned and operated a “mom and pop” grocery store. They worked seven days a week, 365 days a year. No vacations, no days off, no time to be sick. As a boy, I spent many hours doing my homework in the back of the store. It was a real family enterprise, so I also spent many hours helping stock shelves and sweep floors.
I saw what that little store meant to our family and to the neighborhood. And that little store helped send me to college. It made the American dream come true for our entire family. I grew up learning that if you work hard, get a good education, and take care of each other, opportunities will come.
I saw how important our family values were in a very profound way when I took office in 1997. I moved into the Governor’s Mansion—one mile from the house in Olympia where my grandfather worked as a servant in exchange for English lessons, 100 years before.
I think every leader abides by certain deep-seated, meaningful values. And we probably relate best to leaders whose values we share.
Third, I believe good leaders are passionately committed.
In the Legislature, I had a reputation for working late into the night on the budget or other legislation. I would take a six-pack of soda and a bag of chips and lock myself in a room at the end of the day and go to work. I found it was a great way to really concentrate on the problem before me, free from interruptions.
A few reporters wrote comical articles about “the man who mistook the Legislature for his life.” Some of my colleagues thought I was a workaholic—or just plain nuts.
But it was really much simpler than that. I just really cared deeply about achieving the best results possible with our state’s budget. I came to Olympia to help people. I strongly believed that if I worked hard and did my best on the budget process or legislative proposals, I would be able to help more people. Very simple, and probably not very flamboyant. But what I felt was a passionate commitment for what I was doing.
These days it’s even easier to feel very passionate about the future of our state. Mona and I already have two young children, Emily and Dylan. And now we’re expecting our third! I want Washington to be a great place for our kids to live, work and raise a family too.
Fourth and finally, leaders must have integrity. In public life, you must say what you mean, and mean what you say. Waver from that basic rule and trust begins to erode. This may not make for exciting sound bites and enticing controversy, but that’s okay. My own experience is that people would rather hear the truth than a sound bite. They would rather I tell it like it is than tell them what they want to hear.
Integrity also means basing decisions on all the facts and information available. Even if it takes a little more time. There is a big difference between being decisive and being reckless. Good decisions are usually more important than fast decisions. Being a leader entails responsibility. Your decisions affect people’s lives. It’s important to honor that responsibility by giving decisions their full due. If you don’t guess in the first place, then you won’t have to second guess.
Vision, values, passionate commitment and integrity. These are the primary qualities of good leadership, in my view. They are ideal concepts.
But leadership also has a very pragmatic side.
I began my political career back in 1983 when I was sworn into the State House of Representatives. When I first came to Olympia, I soon realized that the other legislators were just everyday people like me. I looked around and saw teachers, fire fighters, farmers, business owners, professionals, home-makers and retirees.
This was a very empowering realization. It demystified state government for me. I saw, too, that I could improve the lives of the citizens of Washington State. I could make a difference. There was no magic or mystique to it. Just a group of everyday people working hard and committed to service – to improving their communities. This realization empowered me to get involved.
Serving in the state House was both challenging and rewarding. But perhaps most of all, it was a great education. I learned a lot. I also believe that my experience in the Legislature gives me a very valuable perspective as Governor.
People are not born to lead, contrary to romanticized notions of “great leaders.” I believe that within us all resides the ability to lead, if we are given a chance and we’re willing to take it. Like starting out in Olympia when I did and seeing the opportunity I had. Sometimes leadership is a matter of being in the right place at the right time.
And sometimes it’s a matter of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Most of us probably didn’t know very much about New York City’s mayor on September 10, 2001. He was not very popular. He was viewed as arrogant. His personal life was in shambles. He was in the midst of a very nasty divorce and openly dating another woman while his wife still lived in the mayor’s Gracie Mansion. But the vision of Mayor Rudy Giuliani calmly leading his city through the most tragic and terrible event in its history, one day later and in the months that followed, is now forever burned into our memories as a profile of inspiring leadership.
Leadership ability is tested in many ways. It is contextual. The demands on a leader vary wildly, depending on circumstances. There are the emergency demands of catastrophic events, at one end of the spectrum. And there’s the team-leading and consensus-building that is part of more typical working days.
Perhaps in the end, leadership is where we find it. The single working mother who takes her three children along with her so that she can speak out at a public hearing affecting her community is a leader. The retiree who organizes a neighborhood watch program is a leader. The middle school student who refuses to smoke and walks away from those who do is a leader. And the manager who keeps the team working together through difficult times is a leader.
What does it take to be an effective and respected leader? There are many possible answers. But I think the important thing is to keep asking the question—about those who govern, about those with whom we work, and perhaps most importantly, about ourselves.
Thank you for this opportunity to share a few thoughts this afternoon.