Good Communication—A Key to Leadership Success
By Krista Rinehart, CSG Leadership Center Coordinator
Many elected leaders are drawn to public service at an early age after watching family members serve or after being captivated by a role model. Others work on a campaign at a young age, volunteering and finding themselves hooked.
Alabama Secretary of State Beth Chapman came to the profession under both circumstances, but her story isn’t as conventional as it first appears.
“I was the self-proclaimed campaign manager for my cousin’s city council race in our small town of Greenville,” recalls Chapman.
But there’s more to the story. As the self-proclaimed campaign manager, Chapman found herself literally and figuratively serving as the candidate’s legs. Her cousin, O.G. Holley, was paraplegic.
“Since there was no such thing as an Americans with Disabilities Act, he was limited in his door-to-door efforts,” said Chapman. “While my friends were out playing all summer, I was going door-to-door for him and debating the issues to the townspeople on his behalf. He won his race and I became— in my mind—the world’s greatest campaign manager.”
Chapman learned two very important things while working for her cousin’s campaign that continue to help her political career. First, good communication skills are essential to not only winning elections, but also to, more importantly, effectively serving once in office. And two, keeping a sense of humor helps maintain both your sanity and a sense of humility.
Chapman illustrates the latter with this final reflection on her entrance into politics: “One day while campaigning for O.G., a dog bit me,” said Chapman. “I should have known then to get out of politics because people have been biting me ever since.”
Chapman entered politics in her own right in 2002 when she was elected auditor. She moved to the secretary of state’s office in 2006 when her well-honed communication skills helped her defeat the incumbent. Chapman’s star has continued to rise. In 2009, she was a member of the Toll Fellows program and is currently serving as president of the National Association of Secretaries of State.
Communication has been key to her service in the secretary of state’s office as she and her staff are charged with administering several important public services, including election administration, business registration and nonprofit status recognition.
“My staff and I have utilized the most up-to-date technology possible to communicate with our citizens,” said Chapman. “Our website provides all aspects of the more than 1,000 duties assigned to the secretary of state.”
Website improvements under Chapman’s leadership have included adding simplified voter registration, campaign finance reports and election returns. In the next year, all campaign finance filings will be available online for the first time in state history. But basic website improvements are only the beginning.
“We use Facebook and Twitter to give frequent get-out-the-vote messages and any reminders needed,” said Chapman. “We have shared weather updates on election day and given the best times to vote, when polls are least congested. We also use Twitter to post open meetings notices so citizens have easy access to government meeting times and locations.”
Given Chapman’s start in politics and her political role models—Ronald Reagan, Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher—it is no surprise that she places such a premium on communication.
Chapman provided these three communications tips to new officials: Always be truthful; know when to stop talking and listen; and keep to your message.
“Be true to yourself and those you serve,” said Chapman. “Communicate the truth in all you do, from emails to speeches, and it may or may not always be reported accurately. However, telling the truth can never hurt you as long as you tell it in a kind, professional manner.”
Chapman, who found herself the target of ethics charges in 2006 that were later determined to be unfounded, will readily admit politics isn’t always fair and isn’t for the weak at heart. She has found that being true to herself and what she believes is the key to weathering political storms.
“My leadership style is one of determination, based on faith in God and respect for people,” said Chapman. “Hard work is at the center of my leadership style, as is honesty and integrity. Knowing how to stand strong, persevere and be consistent when your work is questioned ‘politically’ is essential.”
“I am continually inspired to continue serving by the confidence of knowing that I am doing what I was meant to do,” said Chapman, “and that my work has made a difference in the lives of people and has been for the better good of the government.”