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OHIO Leaders Panel commemorates Senator Voinovich

Daniel Kington
November 15, 2016

The Ohio University Graduate Student Senate hosted the OHIO Leaders Panel on November 1, 2016, which commemorated the late Senator George V. Voinovich and featured discussion on the qualities of effective leadership that he embodied.

Attendees gathered in Walter Hall Rotunda for the panel discussion featuring three speakers, all Ohio University graduates: Cara Dingus Brook, who served as chief liaison to Appalachia for Senator Voinovich from 2004-2007 and is now president and CEO of the Foundation for Appalachian Ohio; R. Gregory Browning, who served as senior policy advisor to then-Governor Voinovich in the late ‘90s, and who currently works as president and owner of Capital Partners as well as a fellow at the Voinovich School; and David Wilhelm, former campaign manager for President Bill Clinton and chair of the Democratic National Committee who is now chief strategy officer of Hecate Energy and co-chair of the Voinovich School Strategic Partners Alliance. The first two speakers had personal relationships with the Senator, and all three currently work in areas in which the senator was widely respected for his service: Appalachian development, business and environmental advocacy, respectively.

For the first half of the panel, each speaker spoke about the leadership lessons to be taken from the Senator’s life and political career.

Brook opened her speech by sharing about her relationship with Senator Voinovich.

“I felt so blessed from an early stage in my career to be able to work with Senator Voinovich,” Brook said. “One of the profound things is that, even though he’s gone, his legacy continues to mentor me, as I regularly remember things he said and the ways he handled things.”

Brook shared stories of their experiences together, emphasizing the level of respect that people from all walks of life seemed to have for the Senator. She then shifted into a discussion of the leadership qualities he represented, which earned him this respect. She said one of her greatest lessons from her time with the Senator was the importance of integrity.

“It’s really about being the best person you could be,” Brook said. “There are millions of books you could read on leadership and technique and skills. But what I learned from Senator Voinovich is that integrity trumps everything. He got up every day thinking about how he could make the world better. Being a senator wasn’t just a job for him; he was a senator to make a difference.”

Brook also cited the importance of “investing in your strengths” and maintaining a good organizational culture to successfully building toward strategic goals.

Browning echoed Brook’s sentiment that the Senator’s most important leadership qualities stemmed from his character.

“He was led by his values,” Browning said. “I think he was that way from the beginning. He was probably that way when he was five years old—I can’t imagine a George Voinovich who wasn’t that way. His leadership was about the fundamentals: simple, powerful traits like honesty and integrity that were rooted in his genuine authenticity.”

Browning believed that the Senator’s most important trait was his empathy and his ability to understand the world from more than one point of view while also taking a stand. In Browning’s words, “He was just a real guy; he understood what people did and didn’t like.”

Browning cited one example that, to him, was particularly illustrative of this idea: “I remember one day, my phone rang at 6 a.m. in the morning; I ran down the hall to get it, and all I heard on the other end was George Voinovich saying, ‘We are NOT taxing hot dogs!’”

While Wilhelm did not have the personal relationship with Senator Voinovich that Browning and Brook did, he served alongside the Senator as co-chair of the School’s Strategic Partners Alliance and said he was inspired by the Senator’s ability to reach across party lines.

“I represent all the Democrats that he beat along the way, and all the hundreds of thousands, even millions of Democrats who, despite their party affiliation, saw in Senator Voinovich qualities of leadership, judgement and integrity," Wilhelm said. "As a Democrat, I have the highest possible regard for Senator Voinovich, as well as the historic role that he played in the state, and I am very proud to represent the School that bears his name.”

Wilhelm then shifted to focus on the achievements of the Voinovich School itself, because, according to Wilhelm, “The Voinovich School certainly reflects the bearing, integrity and sense of mission and purpose of the man.” Wilhelm particularly focused on the School’s ability to innovate, charting a “third path” to move society forward that falls somewhere between pure electoral politics and pure profit maximization. To Wilhelm, the School embodies the Senator’s oft-repeated mantra of “work harder and smarter and do more with less.”

“I think so long as it really reflects the leadership style that the people of Ohio embraced in him, it will be a school that will be a great asset to Ohio University and it will be a school worthy of the man and his name,” Wilhelm said.

The panel then opened the floor for questions, many relating to the Senator and others focused on general leadership development. The discussion ranged from how to create good organizational cultures to how to keep going in the face of defeat.

In answer to a question about the things graduate students can do now to become the state’s future leaders, Brook advised following in the Senator's footsteps: “Really get in there, find something you’re passionate about, and serve.”

Alex Heide, a graduate student studying music, said he appreciated the panelists’ thoughts on judgement. “I really liked the section at the end, where they went into the importance of developing your sense of judgement—that 90 percent of the time, just about anybody could do the job of an elected official, but that it’s the 10 percent of the time when it takes a very specific kind of leader.”

Megan Reed, a graduate student studying journalism, said that she particularly enjoyed learning about the Senator.

“I’m not from Ohio, so I was not familiar with his leadership style,” Reed said. “It seems like he was a very interesting person to work with and a very good person to learn from. I loved hearing about how you don’t work for him, you work with him. I think that’s a very valuable lesson in leadership for graduate students to learn, especially as we prepare to start our careers.”