A Lesson Learned and Now Shared

This morning, I was at the gym listening to one of my favorite morning political shows and something surprising jumped in my head as I listened to the political hay going back and forth.

Lake Winnepesaukee in Meredith, NH – The location of my first role as superintendent

I am a bit of a politics junky. I follow both national and local politics. I like being aware and involved, when I can be, in helping create the type of community and country in which I would like to live.

Politics has some of my favorite things: strategy, planning, problem solving, collaboration, communication, bridge building and competition.

Politics also has selfishness, power grabbing, lying, cheating, short-sightedness, lack of focus, ill-intent, and alienation.

In my opinion, the worst thing about politics is the acrimony and lack of decorum. This has been on display for years and has gotten worse over time.

Other than my election to the University of Oklahoma Student Congress as an undergraduate, I have never held an elected office. However, during my years serving as a Superintendent of Schools, I have worked closely with U.S. Senators and Congressman, State Senators and Legislators, Governors and a host of local leaders in the communities in which I have worked.

I have learned a lot about the political realm from that experience.

Fortunately for me, I learned the most during my first Superintendent job in New Hampshire. I had the pleasure of working with three different school boards in that role. I was hired by the School Administrative Unit #2 (SAU 2) board, which was a combination of the Inter-Lakes School Board and the Ashland School Board. Due to economy of scale, many districts are combined throughout the state into a larger SAU district.

Senator Carl Johnson, Sr.

The thing that popped into my head this morning while listening to the show was one of the most poignant lessons I learned during my time as a Superintendent. I learned it from NH State Senator Carl Johnson, Sr.

Senator Johnson was elected as a State Representative for two terms and a State Senator for five terms. He also served on the Inter-Lakes School Board.

During my first few meetings with Senator Johnson, I was a bit intimidated. I was a 35-year-old first time superintendent and he was well seasoned gentleman of 78 years. He seemed to know everybody in the community and was able to speak intelligently on most topics important to the community and state.

It took me several meetings of the school board with him and also seeing him work in the community before I was able to truly see his work. As you know, a board meeting will have several items on the agenda. The agenda can include approving budgets, hiring staff and negotiating contracts.

I remember one specific night during that first year. We had several important items on the agenda for board approval. One of them was a staffing related item. After I presented the item, the board began deliberation. There was a bit of a passionate discussion among several of the board members. Some felt very strongly on the topic.

Senator Johnson allowed other board members to speak their minds and toward the end of the board discussion, he looked me squarely and eye and asked, “Dr. Andersen, do you support this item?”

He knew that I did, otherwise it would not have been on the agenda. After taking a gulp, I told him through squeaky voice that I did. He thanked me and then said, “Well, I will not be voting for this and he gave a brief reason as to why he was not going to support it.”

The board then voted and approved the item with Senator Johnson being the only dissenting vote.

We then went to the next item on the agenda. I knew in advance that he was in support of it. After I gave a brief description, Senator Johnson was the first board member to begin discussion. He spoke in favor and he encouraged his fellow board members to do the same.

Again, there was some spirited discussion and the board subsequently approved the item.

This pattern continued throughout the meeting and all the meetings during my almost five-year tenure in that district.

Senator Johnson took each issue on its merits. He carefully reviewed the facts, listened to deliberation and made his best principle-centered decision based upon what he thought would be best for the students and the community. On one issue, he may work hard against you, and as soon as that matter was settled, he started all over again.

Regardless of whether his position prevailed in the prior vote, as soon as the next topic came up, he could be 100% on your side without any need for retribution, vitriol, quid pro quo or animosity.

It was said well by one of his legislative colleagues following Senator Johnson’s passing in 2010, “Carl knew how to deal with people. He was one of those rare individuals who could get things done without being abusive. He was very effective, but he did it the old-fashioned way by always being a gentleman.”

I believe we could use more politicians like Senator Johnson, not because of his political leanings, but because of how he went about his work. He did it with purpose, grace and dignity.

He focused more on the community, the students and the state, then he did his own personal emotions and ambitions. I am certain he had some strong feelings about his work, but he kept those gifts to himself and did not try to take others down because they had different opinions and feelings.

I find that a stark contrast to the political machinations of today.

When I needed to improve my tennis game, I played with those who were much better than me and who could teach me to improve my game. And it worked.

It would be nice if we could have boot camp training sessions for modern politicians where they could learn from the masters, like Senator Johnson, on how to get things done and to do so without a scorched earth or cancel culture mentality.

Regardless of what we believe, we are all humans. We can each be unique, disagree, win sometimes and lose sometimes. We get to experience ALL of the human emotions.

I believe that we can do it with kindness, dignity, respect and bigger purpose. I believe we can do all of that in our everyday lives and in our political arenas.

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