15 Great Leadership Lessons From John Kerry's Senate Farewell
After 28 years in the Senate, Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts bid farewell to his colleagues in an emotional address rich in wisdom and perspective on the challenges of our times. In a 50 minute address last Wednesday, he encapsulated the problems—and solutions—to the Senate’s gridlock as well as what it means to be a servant leader and statesmen. As he departs to become America’s chief diplomat, an honor his Senate colleagues voted to give him 94 - 3, his address was the perfect transition—cataloging everything in between his first appearance before the Senate Foreign Relations committee as a young activist in 1971 and his second, just last week, as he was confirmed as Secretary of State.
Below are excerpts of his speech, boiled down into 15 key lessons that he taught his Senate colleagues--and all of us. His long address makes this an uncharacteristically long post--though I've done my best to keep it succinct and free of too much commentary. The entire speech is well worth watching or reading. Like the great oratories of Senate giants past, it will certainly be revisited in classrooms generations from now as a lesson in eloquence, leadership and statesmanship.
1. Failure is important—it teaches us humility.
Kerry began his speech by reflecting on his failed 2004 run for president:
Eight years ago, I admit that I had a very different plan, slightly different anyway, to leave the Senate, but 61 million Americans voted that they wanted me to stay here with you.
And so staying here – I learned about humility, and I learned that sometimes the greatest lesson comes not from victory, but from just dusting off a defeat and starting over when you get knocked down.
He was not alone in learning that humility, he said:
I came to the Senate in 1985 as a member of a hopeful and hard-charging class of freshmen. Paul Simon, Tom Harkin, Al Gore, Phil Gramm, Jay Rockefeller and I all have at least three things in common: we were all sworn in as Senators on the same day, we each explored running or ran for the White House, and none of us made it there.
2. Acknowledgement matters—give thanks to the big and little giants whose shoulders you stand on.
“If I start naming names I’m sure to miss someone –so I’m not going to,” Kerry said. He then acknowledged five members of his staff who’d passed away, the 561 “incredible men and women in Massachusetts and Washington” that he worked with over 28 years and, what is always heartening to hear, he acknowledged the people in the trenches who make Washington work: The interns.
I also think about the interns – 1,393– who have come in and out of our offices from Washington to Worcester. And I’m especially proud of those who started as interns and ended as my Chief of Staff, Legislative Director, senior policy staffers, or the Kerry interns who went on to work not just for me, but who have for the last four years been top speechwriters, trip directors, and senior communications staff at the White House for the President of the United States. I’m proud of our internship program, and grateful to the people who built it and who sustain it.
He even thanked the Senate’s “unsung heros”: the Senate subway operators, the Capitol Police, the many parliamentarians and clerks. He even thanked the reporters “who catch us in the hallways, trap us, ambush us” in the interest of documenting “the first drafts of American history.”
3. Federal workers should be celebrated, not demonized.
Sometimes in politics, it’s now almost a sport in America to dismiss the contributions of the people who work in government, people who make the Senate work, but people that the public never see. I admired the way our former colleague Ted Kaufman used to come down here once a week and tell the story of one individual federal worker. The stories are legion. Instead of tearing these people down, we should be lifting them up, and I thank them all for the part they play in our democracy.
4. Respect America’s institutions—they’re bigger than any one person and unite us.
“I do feel a wistfulness about leaving the United States Senate,” Kerry said. “And that’s because, despite the obvious frustrations of recent days and years, a frustration we all share — this place remains one of the most extraordinary institutions of any kind on the face of the earth.”
He went on to emphatically state that he still believes in the Senate:
I want to be very clear about my feelings: I do not believe the Senate is broken — certainly not as an institution. There is nothing wrong with the Senate that can’t be fixed by what’s right about the Senate – the predominant and weighty notion that 100 American citizens, chosen by their neighbors to serve from states as different as Massachusetts and Montana, can always choose to put parochial or personal interests aside and find the national interest.
5. Servant leadership is the truest kind of leadership--and it demands courage.
Kerry became emotional as he said:
Standing here at this desk that once belonged to President Kennedy and to Ted Kennedy, I can’t help but be reminded that even the nation’s greatest leaders — and all the rest of us — are merely temporary workers. I am reminded that this chamber is a living museum, a lasting memorial to the miracle of the American experiment.
I would remind everyone here, as I take my leave from the Senate, when President George H.W. Bush returned from agreeing to a deficit reduction deal at Andrews Air Force Base, he wrote in his diary that he might well have sealed his fate as a one term President. He did what he thought was right for the country and laid the groundwork for our ability to three times balance the budget at the end of the 1990s. That’s courage and the Senate and the Congress and the country need more of it.
6. Divided we will certainly fail.
He recalled the words of another legendary Senator from Massachusetts, Daniel Webster:
Another master of the Senate, Massachusetts’ Daniel Webster, delivered 183 years ago this week what has often been praised as the greatest speech in Senate history. He stood at the desk that now belongs to the senior Senator from New Hampshire and argued forcefully in favor of the very idea that makes us the United States: that we’re all in this together, that we each have a stake in the successes and failures of our countrymen, that what happens in Ohio matters to those in South Carolina, or in Massachusetts or to Montanans. “Union and Liberty,” Webster shouted. “Now and forever, one and inseparable!”
And then quoted historian Robert Caro:
As Caro retells it, “those words, spoken among the desks, in the Senate” left those in the gallery in tears and cast a model for how those of us in this chamber must consider the constituents of our colleagues, as well as our own.
7. We must lead for our times and for all times.
But the truth is that none of us ran for office because of a great debate held centuries ago. None of us moved here because of the moving words of a Senator long since departed. We honor this history, but we’re here because of the legacy that we can and want to leave. It is up to us–to my colleagues here today and those to come after us, it is up to us to keep the Senate great. I fully believe we will meet that obligation— if, as the President told the nation and the world last week, we seize this moment together.
8. Our choices, not processes and rules, define us.
In the spirit of James Madison’s warning against faction, Kerry said the Senate’s problems weren’t its rules but the individuals who abuse them.
Yes–Congress and public life face their difficulties these days, but not because the structure that our Founding Fathers gave us is inherently flawed. For sure, there are moments of great frustration — for the American people and for everybody in this place. But I don’t believe they are the fault of the institution itself. It’s not the rules that confound us per se. It’s the choices people make about those rules. The rules we work by now are essentially the same ones that were here when I joined the Senate and found things to move much more easily than they do today.
Frankly, the problems we live through today come from individual choices made by Senators themselves—not the rules. When an individual Senator – or a colluding caucus — determine that the comity essential to an institution like the Senate is a barrier to individual ambition or party ambition, the country loses. Those are the moments in which the Senate fulfills, not its responsibility to the people, but its reputation as a sanctuary of gridlock.
9. Our problems are manmade, so they can be solved by man.
So I leave here convinced that we can keep our republic strong. When President Kennedy observed that “Our problems are manmade; therefore they can be solved by man,” he was talking about a much more literal kind of nuclear option than the euphemism we use today to discuss Senate rules. But his vision is just as important for us to recognize in our time, whether we are talking about the ability of Senators to debate and vote, or about any of the issues on which they do so. It is still true today, as he said 50 years ago, that “reason and spirit have often solved the seemingly unsolvable, and we believe he said they can do it again.” I believe that too.
10. The Senate faces three challenges: lack of respect, the corrupting influence of money and the disregard for fact.
Kerry laid out the three problems, in his view, that keep the Senate from doing the business of the people:
First, I have witnessed what we all have: a loss of simple comity, the respect that we owe one another and the sense of common cause that brings all of us here. The Senate as a body can change its rules to make it more efficient, sure. But only Senators, one by one, in their own hearts, can change their approach to legislating, which Henry Clay correctly defined as the art of consensus.
There is another challenge we must address – and it is the corrupting force of the vast sums of money necessary to run for office. The unending chase for money, I believe, threatens to steal our democracy itself. I’ve used the word corrupting – and I mean by it not the corruption of individuals, but a corruption of a system itself that all of us are forced to participate in against our will. The alliance of money and the interests it represents, the access it affords those who have it at the expense of those who don’t, the agenda it changes or sets by virtue of its power, is steadily silencing the voice of the vast majority of Americans who have a much harder time competing, or who can’t compete at all.
The last of these three obstacles that we have the ability, if not yet the will, to overcome is the unbelievable disregard for facts and science in the conduct of our affairs. It, like the first two, degrades our credibility abroad as well as at home.
11. Leadership must be by example.
As he prepares to become Secretary of State, he made his view clear: The failures of leadership in Congress sow the seeds for failed leadership abroad. If the United States can’t lead by example it cannot lead at all:
But we cannot ignore the fact that today, treaties that would have years ago passed 100-0 don’t pass at all. People who want to vote for something that they believe in actually don’t do so, for fear of retribution. That is a reflection on all of us. As I prepare to represent our nation in capitals around the world, I’m conscious that my credibility as a diplomat – and ours as a country – is determined to a great degree by what happens in our own capital city. The antidote to that, and it is pushed by rival countries is to demonstrate that we can get our economic house in order. We can be no stronger abroad than we are at home.
The unwillingness of some to yield to national interest is damaging to America’s prospects in the world. We are quick to talk about the global economy and about global competition, but it’s our own procrastination and outright avoidance of obvious choices that threatens our own future. Other nations are both quick and glad to fill the vacuum that’s brought about by our inaction.
Our self-inflicted wounds reduce our leverage and influence in the world. And by failing to act, Congress is making it harder to actually advance America’s interests, and making it harder for American business to compete and for American workers to succeed. If America is to continue to lead the free world, this must end.
12. Relationships matter.
I learned that the Senate runs on relationships. I know that some of my more recent colleagues, sent here in tumultuous election cycles, hear that and think it’s code for checking their beliefs at the door, and “going Washington.” It’s not — and I’d add, don’t kid yourself: no one got here on a platform of pledging to join an exclusive club and forget where they came from.
When I say that relationships matter, I don’t mean back-slapping, glad-handing, hail-fellow well-met, go-along-to-get-along relationships. I mean real relationships.
As today’s hard charging colleagues who came to Washington to shake things up, I’d remind them: so did I, so did Tom Harkin, and the others I mentioned. If I told you that a 40-year-old newly minted Senator John Kerry was going to tell you that relationships matter most, I would have looked at you like you had three heads. I cut my teeth in grassroots activism. I didn’t come up through the political ranks. I burst onto the scene as an activist and when you’re an activist, all that singularly matters to the exclusion of almost all else are the issues. Where are you on an issue. Right or wrong and that’s the ballgame. Wrong, that’s not the ballgame.
That’s not what makes a good Senator. That’s not what makes the Senate work.
13. Diversity strengthens us.
Kerry acknowledged the incredible amount of progress in the Senate in his 28 years:
These halls used to be filled with the voices of men and men only. Decisions affecting more than half the population were made by people representing the other half. When I walked into the Old Senate Chamber to take my first ceremonial oath 28 years ago, I was joined by my two teenage daughters. It struck me that I had twice as many daughters as there were women in the Senate. Today, with the service of 20 women, including Massachusetts’ new junior Senator, this is a stronger, smarter place; more representative of our belief that out of many, we are one; more capable of fulfilling the vision carried from Washington to Webster to our current President that we are a stronger nation when our leadership reflects our population.
We have made huge strides in turning the page on gay rights. In 1993, I testified before Strom Thurman’s Armed Services Committee pushing to lift the ban on gays serving in the military and I ran into a world of misperceptions. I thought I was on a Saturday Night Live skit. Today at last, that policy is gone forever and we are a country that honors the commitment of all willing to fight and die for our country. We’ve gone from the Senate that passed DOMA over my objections to one that just welcomed its first openly gay Senator. There are good changes that have taken place for our Senate and our country. But we have more work to do. This place needs more women, more people of color, more diversity of background and experience.
14. Youth shouldn’t stop you from sharing your voice—or listening to others.
He then at once encouraged freshmen members to speak, but more importantly listen:
And so as I offer my final words on the Senate floor, I remember that I came of age in a Senate where freshman Senators didn’t speak all that often.
Senators no longer hold their tongues through whole sessions of Congress, and they shouldn’t. Their voices are just as valuable, and their votes count just as much as the most tenured member of this body. But being heard by others does not exempt them from listening to others
15. Finally, listening, above all else, is what matters most.
In the decades between then and now, this is what I’ve learned above all else: The privilege of being here is in being able to listen to your constituents. It is the people and their voices – much more than the marble buildings and the inimitable institutions they house – that determine whether or not our democracy works.
In my first appearance before the United States Senate, at the Fulbright Hearings, I began by saying, “I am not here as John Kerry. I am here as one member of the group of one thousand, which is a small representation of a much larger group.”
I feel much the same way today, as I leave. We are still symbols, representatives of the people who have given us the honor to speak and advocate and vote in their name. And that, as the Bible says, is a “charge to keep.”
If you have an hour, you can watch Kerry’s full remarks below: