Connect with John Pisapia

The Byrd Effect

Robert C. Byrd the long term senator from West Virginia died on June 26, 2010; he was 92 years old and served in the congress for 57 years.   He was the white haired senator whose hands shook when he spoke on the floor of the senate.  When I met him his hands weren’t shaking, but he was shaking things up!

My first meeting with the Senator came the week after I was appointed as West Virginia’s State Superintendent of School some 22 years ago. I was practicing the strategic leader tactic of BRIDGING – I flew to DC to meet all the congressional delegation and State department bureaucrats who were on my critical path.  You know - the people you must have good relationships with if you want to move your agenda along.The meeting with the Senator began a series of interactions which taught me some valuable leadership lessons. My most vivid recollection is a lesson I call the “Byrd Effect. 

The story went something like this - sometime after the first procedural meeting I asked for a substantive meeting with the Senator; which was granted.  I proceeded to describe a needed reading program for the children of our State and all we needed was some slack resources [money] to get the project moving.  I knew that he was profoundly self-educated and well read and could tell that he was interested in the program and therefore was surprised that his reaction was not a straightforward – I will do what I can to help. What he said was, “you’ve convinced me.  Now go convince my constituency.” 

 What a lesson!! I even created a heuristic – “the Byrd Effect” to remind me of the power of bridging to others before you need their help.  You not only have to convince the decision maker but also the decision maker’s network to move your agenda.  The next time I had a request to make of the Senator, I talked with those whose opinion he valued.  I learned that when I got them to shake their head up and down, the Senator was more likely to shake his head up and down.

There were other lessons from the Senator.  He was a shining example of how a person without resources gains power. He took assignments that no one wanted to do – but were central and visible to the organization - and did them well.  For example, without positional authority, he noted that the Senate Whips of his day [Russell Long and Ted Kennedy] were not doing their job - you know scheduling votes to accommodate people’s schedules, keeping track of favors, and counting and courting votes to pass the party’s legislation.  It was a mundane job - a technician type job – someone who makes sure the trains run on time.  But by doing this menial but important work he met most of the key people in the Senate and became powerful as they courted his influence and favors.

My last lesson from the Senator was less pleasant; but instructive.  I was in my last months as State Superintendent when we got a call from the Senator’s office that he would be speaking before a teachers group in the State and he desired that I introduce him to the audience [not that he needed an introduction, but I guess it’s another form of bridging]. To make a long story short, I was scheduled for a long planned vacation with my family and sent my Deputy to introduce the Senator. 

WELL! – I got a call the next day from the Senator himself and learned that the wrath of a Senator scorned was difficult to deal with – I was glad I was near the end of my term!  It was a bridge that was burning if not burnt and in my line of work that was not a good thing!

Senator Byrd left a lasting impression on me and his people. He gave us wings and roots!  He was a proud man.  He brought himself up from his boot straps -
When asked, how many presidents he had served under, he as quick to reply, “None! I served with presidents, not under them.”  He was leader whose proudest accomplishment was that he gave hope to his people.  Isn’t that what we expect from our leaders?

 John Pisapia

Join the SL Global Learning Community on  Facebook


on Facebook