Decision Makers Discuss Leadership at GW event

Paul O’Dwyer Lecture explores lessons learned in pressure situations.

O'Dwyer Lecture panelists
Former U.S. Ambassador to Kuwait and Libya Deborah Jones, far right, discusses one of her earliest overseas assignments as a foreign services officer in Iraq in the mid-1980s. (Dave Scavone/For GW Today)
March 28, 2016

By James Irwin

Mary Landrieu was asked early in her public service career to deliver a commencement speech at Louisiana Tech. The then-member of the Louisiana House of Representatives was nervous and for good reason. She was terrified of speaking in public.

“My first campaign speeches were just terrible because I was so scared I could hardly speak,” the former Democratic U.S. senator said Thursday at the George Washington University. “I had previously given a graduation speech in my hometown, and it was horrible. I completely flubbed it.”

She mustered up the courage to say yes anyway.

“I went and gave probably the best speech of my life,” Ms. Landrieu said. “You have got to face your greatest fear. And it stuck with me, because every time I had to give my first speech as state treasurer, my first speech when I ran for governor, my first speech on the floor of the United States Senate, that speech [at Louisiana Tech] came back to me.”

Ms. Landrieu, former U.S. Secretary of Transportation Maria Cino, former Governor of Puerto Rico Luis Fortuño and former U.S. Ambassador to Kuwait and Libya Deborah Jones recalled moments that tested them as leaders Thursday at the Graduate School of Political Management’s Paul O’Dwyer Lecture.

The event was moderated by GSPM Director Mark Kennedy and featured welcoming remarks from Vice President for Development and Alumni Relations Aristide J. Collins Jr. and Brian O’Dwyer, B.A. ’66, L.L.M. ’76.

Brian O’Dwyer addresses the crowd in advance of Thursday's panel discussion. "I established the lectureship because I believe strongly in the mission of the school to promote politics and civility and integrity," he said. He added that discussions between leaders from different disciplines are more important now than ever before. (Dave Scavone/For GW Today)

Leadership, the panelists said, manifests itself in many ways, often in high-stress situations. Ms. Cino recalled the logistical challenge of evacuating people from New Orleans in the hours and days after Hurricane Katrina.

Ms. Jones remembered one of her earliest overseas assignments as a foreign services officer in Iraq in the mid-1980s.

Mr. Fortuño spoke of inheriting a financial crisis in Puerto Rico upon taking office.

The old tropes of good leadership—a willingness to collaborate, rational thinking and building relationships—become necessary tools in tough times, Mr. Fortuño said. He looked at Puerto Rico’s financial situation and knew he would have to work with union leaders, who represented many government workers.

“I tried to think what I would think if I were them,” he said. “It’s a test in leadership on both sides. I tried to put myself in their position. Working together is the only way to accomplish [something difficult].”

Those qualities are more important now than ever, said Mr. O’Dwyer, a member of the GSPM Board of Advisors. Bringing people together from a range of public leadership positions is unique and necessary, he said.

“This is a time when this particular exercise is really important for the future of the country,” he said. “The lack of civility and bipartisanship in this town has never been more acute. We’re hoping [a discussion like] this is among the steps necessary to refocus.”

Former Governor of Puerto Rico Luis Fortuño, left, GSPM Director Mark Kennedy, center, and Mr. O'Dwyer share a moment prior to the event. (Dave Scavone/For GW Today)

Sometimes you learn more from defeat than victory, Ms. Cino said, and sometimes a short-term victory can unravel into a defeat over time. She remembered then-President George W. Bush preparing to sign the bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (the McCain–Feingold Act) in 2002. Ms. Cino, a former deputy chair of the Republican National Committee, was against the signing of the act because of unintended consequences that have since come to fruition.

“I think we made a mistake. You can try to take money out of the parties’ hands, but there’s always going to be somebody else willing to take that money and spend it,” she said. “And I think today we can look back at [McCain–Feingold], and we’re seeing Super PACs spending money on selected candidates, or one candidate. That was the birth of Super PACs.”

The most difficult challenge might come from within, Ms. Jones added. Understanding different perspectives—even from people on the same team—is critical in leadership. That is why she made it a point to enroll at the National War College.

“The reason I did that was to learn another language, which is how the military thinks and how they work, and what drives them crazy about the State Department,” she said. “One [officer] told us, ‘The problem with you foreign service people is everything is nuanced. Well you can’t nuance a missile. It’s physics. Either you launch it, or you don’t launch it.’

“If you aren’t cooperating and understanding and trying to get along, you’re not going to be able to lead,” she said.