True Leaders Make People ‘Want to Do Better’
By Krista Rinehart, CSG Director of the Toll Fellowship Program
For Massachusetts Sen. Jennifer Flanagan, politics really is personal.
She was prompted to run for office because of her work with girls in a group home and as chief of staff for former state Rep. Mary Jane Simmons. But, she said, “it is my commitment to the people of my district that keeps me motivated. I work hard to ensure the needs of my district are met.”
Raised by a hard-working single mother, Flanagan credits the dedication of her mother, Diane, to family and caring nature with making her who she is today.
“It sounds cliché to have your mother as a role model,” said Flanagan, “but I think we truly learn the meaning of hard work at home and I was fortunate to have a mother who has spent her life showing my siblings and me how to be happy, but also how to give back to our community.”
Simmons, Flanagan’s professional role model, also struck a chord by showing a commitment to others and to community. Flanagan credits Simmons with instilling in her the belief that people come before politics or political gain.
“Throughout the eight years I worked for Mary Jane, I learned one important lesson: ‘People, not politics,’ and that has stuck with me,” Flanagan said. “Mary Jane was someone who was that ‘hometown’ woman and she gave everything to improve the quality of life for her constituents.”
Simmons’ legacy is reflected in Flanagan’s view of politics and her fellow public servants. Her desire to improve the lives of constituents has guided Flanagan’s service through two terms in the House of Representatives and in her current service as a state senator. Appealing to the common desire of public officials to improve life for their constituents has helped Flanagan build support on both sides of the aisle in a time when partisan bickering is at an all-time high.
“I believe that each elected official wants to fulfill the commitment to their respective districts, but at the same time we must all take a step back and look at each issue with a single question: ‘What type of effect is this going to have on the people we represent?’ That single question has helped me gain bipartisan support on issues from child abuse and endangerment to support for budget line items to legislation pertaining specifically to my district,” she said.
Flanagan struggled during college with which career choice—law school or therapist training—would allow her to have the greatest impact on the lives of disadvantaged children. Her work in the legislature has given her the platform to address those issues. She has worked to shepherd social issues like child abuse, substance abuse, education and mental health through the legislative process. Those issues are of utmost importance to Flanagan. In fact, she calls her first appointment as a committee chair for the Joint Committee on Mental Health and Substance Abuse her first real leadership position despite an impressive history of serving on various boards and in student body leadership positions at UMass Amherst. She credits this chairmanship with teaching important lessons in objectivity and balanced leadership.
“Co-chairing a committee such as this around the time of the increased use in OxyContin was demanding,” said Flanagan, “but also required a compassionate and objective leader to help shape policy. It took a delicate balance to understand the concerns of those affected and addicted to this substance, but also someone who was willing to ask the tough questions and work to try and limit the number of people who could become afflicted with substance abuse in the future.”
Asking tough questions and speaking her mind are two leadership traits for which Flanagan is known. Her straight-talking style and strong leadership have found her at the lead of several Senate committees and prompted Senate President Stan Rosenberg and others to support her application for the prestigious Toll Fellows Program at The Council of State Governments. Flanagan recently completed the weeklong leadership training program as a member of the 2011 class.
Flanagan is proud of her reputation for honesty and believes it is a key to her ability to build bipartisan support for the issues that matter to her.
“It is key to be true to your word and honest with your colleagues,” said Flanagan. “A person’s word is all they have in the field of politics, so it is important to be able to have truthful, meaningful conversations with colleagues on both sides of the aisle.
“True leaders are those who work hard and excite the people around them to want to do better,” she said. “It’s the moments no one is watching when you know someone is a true leader. When the cameras have gone away and the crowd has thinned, the effective leader will remain committed to the job at hand and see it through to completion.”