Leading in the Mode of George Washington
By Krista Rinehart, CSG Leadership Center Coordinator
Leadership comes as easily to Virginia Transportation Secretary Sean Connaughton as tying a knot.
The U.S. Merchant Marine Academy graduate has held numerous important leadership positions throughout his career, beginning with his service as a commissioned officer in the U.S. Coast Guard.
“Serving as a commissioned officer taught me how to motivate and lead people with very different backgrounds,” said Connaughton. “It also taught me how to work with the people you have. You may not always have the perfect people for each situation. But if you use everyone’s strengths as a team, you can generally address any issue or solve any problem.”
Connaughton’s initial foray into politics came when he was elected to the Prince William County, Va., Board of Supervisors in 1999. He ran for office out of concern for his community and the direction in which it was headed.
“I feel very strongly that it is important to do something. You can’t just sit back and complain. So I ran for office,” said Connaughton.
While serving on the Board of Supervisors, Connaughton helped oversee the formation of the Prince William County Department of Transportation. In 2006, he was named U.S. maritime administrator by President George W. Bush, where he was responsible for management of the nation’s maritime industry and transportation network.
Connaughton also spent time in the private sector, serving as corporate vice president for governmental affairs with the American Bureau of Shipping. In January, he joined Gov. Bob McDonnell’s cabinet as secretary of transportation.
Like many states, Virginia has a host of infrastructure and transportation needs and funding them is sometimes challenging. Connaughton notes that federal stimulus funds helped support a number of projects in northern Virginia and other areas where rapid growth has required a lot of transportation infrastructure investment.
“The stimulus project helped fill a major gap,” said Connaughton. “Our transportation funds are a special fund, so when the state revenue went down with the economy, so did our funding.”
Connaughton knew Virginia couldn’t rely on stimulus money alone. So some creative private-public partnerships, internal streamlining department policies and procedures and a public bond package have helped Virginia fill in the remaining gaps that federal dollars couldn’t plug.
“What we did was built on the stimulus money by cleaning up our internal process to save money,” he said.
A legislature-approved $3.2 billion bond package and a number of public-private partnerships have allowed the state to move projects to the construction phase much more quickly.
Connaughton’s record of leadership has earned him a number of recognitions, including the 2009 Vincent T. Hirsh Maritime Award for Outstanding Leadership and an honorary doctorate in public administration from the Massachusetts Maritime Academy. He also was recently selected as a 2012 Toll Fellow.
Connaughton notes he is not driven by such recognition and feels his leadership style is one of quietly leading by example.
“I try to motivate those that work for me by being a good example,” said Connaughton. “I lead by being the first one there and striving to always remain professional.”
His primary leadership example is the father of our country.
“To me, George Washington is the perfect model of a leader,” said Connaughton. “He should be the role model for everyone in American public service. He was ethical, moral. He tried to be inclusive. And no matter how much power he attained, he never abused it. He didn’t seek power for power’s sake. At his heart he wanted to be a private citizen and simply answered the call of need raised by his fellow Americans.”
“I try to follow Washington’s example and lead inclusively.”
Connaughton seeks opinions and tries to make decisions grounded in that broad foundation of information.
“That can be hard today with so many differing opinions, but I try,” he said.