“S.O.B” read the sign on the trash bin. It was next to the elevator on the first floor of the Virginia State Office Building. I was thirty years old, and two years out of graduate school with a toddler at home and I knew absolutely zip about state government of any kind. To be greeted with the words “S.O.B.” on my first day on the job stuck in my head. In some ways, it was an omen.

My first class in what not to do came in the first week. The elegant chair in my elegant office was broken, so I called the local office supply store and ordered a new one. And then, all holy hell broke loose.

Letters were hand-delivered and I received shouting phone calls. The Director of this, that and the other stomped to my door.

“What do you think you are doing?”

“I needed a chair and purchased one.”

“We have an agreement with this, that and the other company and we only buy from them!”

“But my chair costs $600 less than what your companies charge.”

“That doesn’t matter,” came the huffy reply. “NEVER do that again!”

Hmm…and all of this happening in the S.O.B. A coincidence?

Government at Work

Part of my job was to be present at any legislative committees or hearings dealing with my responsibilities, so much of my day was often spent in Mr. Jefferson’s grand building. During the proceedings, many spectators read magazines or newspapers, or dozed off (as did many of the committee members). I, however, was mesmerized. It was incredibly exciting to be this close to the real action.

I was also expected to be a resource to the committees and at hearings as I gained more knowledge. Only two months on the job, I was invited to a legislative committee hearing in the southwest corner of the state. There were seven members of the committee—all male—and me.

We boarded the governor’s jet at 4 p.m. By the time we arrived an hour or more later, I was the only sober person on board, except (I hope) for the pilot. When the hearing started, I sat with the committee behind long tables on a stage as we waited for public testimony.

What I heard astonished me but it was probably just my naiveté. This was the 1970s after all, but the discussion about any female who testified, especially if she was young and attractive, had nothing to do with her comments. Instead, they were all about her chest, her legs and whatever. I don’t think these guys even noticed that I was there—or else it was partly for my benefit. Looking back, that was likely the southern male culture of the times and it didn’t matter whether I was there or not.

Back on the job and slightly disillusioned, I prepared for my first Board of director’s meeting. The Governor appointed all the members and they all belonged to his party. The more I listened, the more I figured out that they were there because they belong to his party and voted for him. While not the most committed to the cause of the agency I ran, they were interesting to be with and taught me much.

Our meetings would start at 5 p.m. The first hour and a half turned out to be a party caucus. My job was to sit, observe and be quiet. What an education into rural America politics competing with not so rural America! When our board meeting started, everyone was wearing down and eager for drinks and dinner. Not much was accomplished for my agency, but I earned a Ph.D. in political life.

After I’d been the executive director of this agency for a year, I was notified not to be late for a special legislative meeting. As usual, I sat in the balcony with rapt attention. I had prepped some of the members with essential information related to the bill we were promoting in advance. At one point, a member rose, “I propose that we devote $5 million to this issue.” Then he turned to me with a questioning look on his face. I offered a thumbs-up gesture, and he returned his attention to the gavel holder, saying, “Make that $10 million. The children of Virginia deserve our support.”

The vote was unanimous.

What Government Taught Me About Leadership

In many ways, the SOB on that trashcan was an omen for things to come.But I also learned a lot about leadership, including:

  • When you start a new job, learn the rules and regs as soon as quickly–even the ones that don’t make sense.
  • You can sleep during routine meetings or learn a ton; it’s your choice.
  • Being the only sober one on the team is far better than being the only drunk one.

Government turned out to be different than I expected, although in some ways better and in others worse.There’s no question that I learned a lot. No graduate or law school class could teach you more about the workings of government than working inside it. Few times in my life following that moment have I ever felt such power—or such sadness about how bizarre the process is and how much power it has to do good or evil.