Throughout my career, I’ve had the distinct pleasure to serve Nevada as a legislator, gaming regulator, attorney general, federal judge and now as governor. To have worked in all three branches of government has broadened my perspective, and my experiences have been a tremendous asset in my current job as governor. Each branch is very distinct, and each position presents a unique set of challenges. That being said, the one constant, no matter the position, has been the necessity to make key decisions and, when the time comes, to lead.
The three branches of government possess distinctively different qualities that go beyond the classic definition of each branch. Moving from one branch to the other, their distinctions become obvious. The legislative branch truly is closest to the people, especially in a small state like Nevada. It acts as the most populist in the conduct of its business, and hearings often become emotional and personal as people want, expect and should be heard.
The judicial branch operates at a much different pace. When I was on the bench, I was the one in charge of my calendar, my courtroom and the process by which information came before me. My decisions were subject to review only by the appellate courts.
The executive branch is a mixture of the legislative and judiciary. Like the legislature, there is often a hectic pace as problems transform one into the next. The level of public scrutiny is extremely high. Much like my time on the bench, as governor, I must weigh information and make decisions on a continuous basis. Unfortunately, the time afforded to weigh these decisions is nowhere near the time afforded to me while on the bench. As governor, I have found that even the best-laid plans can be taken off course by a change in circumstances or a new crisis that arises, forcing everything else off the table.
To be effective in any branch of government, or even in the private sector, one must understand that each situation presents a different set of challenges. These differences, however, do not always necessitate the need for a change in leadership style.
In my first job as a state legislator, and each job I have held since, I have tried to embody and set the example of service above self. Now, I am not unique, as there is a whole body of literature relative to this ideal. In the early ’70s, Robert Greenleaf developed a theory of “servant leadership” and wrote extensively on the topic. His beliefs picked up steam in the ’90s and today, “The Servant as Leader” is espoused by many, particularly in the area of nonprofits.
Greenleaf’s work is as much about ethics as it is about leadership. He begins with the premise that leaders should be attentive to the concerns of their followers, and that they should empathize and take care to nurture them. For many academics and leadership practitioners alike, this idea of servant leadership is a far cry from traditional “transactional leadership,” which espouses that leaders exchange items of value with subordinates to advance an agenda.
In contrast, the servant-leader is servant first. Greenleaf said it begins with a feeling that one wants to serve and that conscious choice then brings one to aspire to lead. That is a very different approach from someone who is a leader first, either because of personal desire for power or the drive to accumulate possessions or change the way things operate. In the world of politics, one can always tell the leader who desires to serve from the leader who seeks to be viewed exclusively as a leader. As I continue to serve the public, I still reflect on what leadership truly means.
More and more, I contemplate what literature describes as “transformational leadership.”
Transformational leadership is about change and not just achieving a common goal. It signifies a process that changes and transforms people, organizations or cultures. Like servant leadership, it is concerned with emotions, values and ethics. Theorists argue that transformational leadership motivates followers to do more than what is expected by raising the level of understanding about the importance and value of the task at hand and about the ultimate goals. It also focuses on the importance of motivating followers to put the greater good ahead of their own transactional needs.
It is my belief the transformational leadership style fits the needs of today’s workforce. Employees and stakeholders want to be inspired and empowered, they want to share in the decision-making and they want to experience the success. Times are uncertain and they need to know the future will be better than the present.
Hope and optimism need a place in our public lives and in our corporate and legal organizations. I believe we get to that point by putting service above self and working for transformational change. If you place service above self, and if you seek to transform and not just to lead, you will have a true and tangible impact on the world.
Servant leadership and service above self are not unproblematic. In fact, the model is often criticized by leadership theorists because of the lack of measurement tools. But it is hard to isolate leadership traits or define the process of serving because service is altruistic. Large, complex organizations and issues are difficult to approach from the position of making all followers healthier, wiser, freer or more autonomous.
Nonetheless, for me it has been worth it. I firmly believe that I have achieved in life, despite my small beginnings, because I approach public life from a position of service. I often tell students and young leaders there is a difference between wanting to do something and wanting to be something. In the end, one must follow his or her own path. The difference, however, between just showing up or truly making a difference is what will establish a lasting and meaningful legacy.