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The Future of American Leadership

The Future of American Leadership

This morning I wrote that solving our nation's transportation challenges, "requires vision--men and women who can develop innovative solutions, and champions who...have the fortitude to see them through." This afternoon, I want to share with you my thoughts about what it takes to be one of those champions.

Cross-posted from The Chicago Tribune.

I'm a lifelong Republican who served seven terms in Congress. When President Barack Obama called on me to serve in his historic administration, I knew it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for truly bipartisan public service. Sure, we had our differences. But we shared a passion for public service — and that's what mattered.

As I close the last chapter in my book of service, I'm taking stock of the Washington I see today. Sadly, I see a town that is increasingly distracted by political sideshows and name-calling, which are hurting its ability to effectively address our most pressing issues.

Photo of Secretary LaHood at a DOT town hall meeting

As a former member of Congress, I get it. Solving our nation's problems is hard work, and it always has been. Today it is made even more difficult by constant partisan debate, but the truth is, we can overcome this.

Over the course of my career — 17 years as a Capitol Hill aide, 14 years as a congressman, 4 1/2 years as the U.S. Secretary of Transportation — I've seen my mentors, my colleagues and even my rivals come together and solve big problems. Time and time again, the quality they've all shared is leadership.

The funny thing about leadership is that while it's hard to define, it's very easy to identify. People know a leader when they see one.

Here are a few key qualities I've observed in strong leaders.

  • Leaders listen. These days, it may seem as though our politicians are more interested in being the loudest person in the room than hearing the other side. But it was not always this way. My mentor, former House Minority Leader Bob Michel, believed that listening was the most important factor in his success. When we really listen, we begin to see the question from the other person's point of view.
  • Leaders judge honestly. In politics we are required to make judgments on what people say or do, but we can do that without passing judgment on their character or motivation. In other words, those who disagree with us are not bad people. Understanding this difference is a virtue. While serving in Congress, then U.S. representative and now mayor of Chicago Rahm Emanuel and I hosted a series of bipartisan dinners where House members from both parties spent an evening together talking policy and politics and getting to know each other personally. You can be sure that we did not agree on everything — but we did lay the foundation for good will and friendships that would help us take on the challenges of the day. President Obama's recent efforts to break bread and play golf with members of Congress are a testament to his own commitment to good will and honest judgment. I have said from the beginning of my friendship with this president: Bipartisanship is in his DNA.
  • Leaders are prudent. They are practical and use common sense. These skills are not necessarily the essence of personal charisma, thrilling oratory or swiftness in debate, but they are critical to achieving long-term progress. Prudence is a quiet quality and demands long periods of considered judgment rather than catchy speeches.
  • Leaders conduct themselves with civility — in victory or defeat. Someone once said that civility in public life is like good manners in private life: They don't solve problems, but they create an atmosphere in which problems can be solved.
  • Leaders take responsibility for how they conduct themselves and for the decisions they make. People want leaders who answer for their actions.

Successful public service in a democracy does not mean the destruction of one's enemies. If, in the midst of secession and strife, President Abraham Lincoln could say to his countrymen, "We are not enemies, but friends," then surely we can do the same today.

There is always going to be another issue and another debate. Our job, as political leaders, is to build the relationships that help us compromise and get things done.

Solving the difficult problems that face our nation has always been hard. It was hard for Lincoln to keep the union together during the Civil War. It was hard for Congress to pass a civil rights bill that ensured equal rights for all Americans. And it was hard for us to balance the budget in the 1990s.

But we did it. And we did it together. We certainly can do it again.

The qualities I've laid out may seem less valued in today's Washington, but that is precisely why they are most important. The next generation is counting on us to do more. Let's start by being better leaders, being bipartisan and being willing to compromise.

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Ray LaHood, you are a true statesman. Thank you for your public service and for your wise words about leadership in America. Godspeed in your future adventures.