Editor’s note: This article is from Iowa Capital Dispatch from April 2, 2022
Through history, some political leaders have been outstanding orators. Boy, could they talk. They knew how to mobilize and move people with their words.
Think of Franklin Roosevelt and, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Or Ronald Reagan and, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”
The ability to crystallize their thoughts in memorable speeches can galvanize public opinion and bring people around to the leader’s views.
But the best leaders have something else, and it gets too little attention and respect, especially in these divisive times. That is the leader’s listening skills.
This lack of attention to listening is unfortunate, because leadership is more than simply making decisions. Leadership is far more complicated than just doing what the leader’s most ardent supporters want.
Real leaders listen to people who disagree with them. They let those people explain their experiences, their concerns and suggestions — because such perspective may not be truly understood by the person in charge.
As is often the case when I think about leadership, Robert D. Ray comes to mind.
A recent Iowa History Month essay focused on how during Ray’s tenure as governor the state led the way nationally in protecting Native American remains and burial sites. Lakota activist Maria Pearson of Ames was instrumental in the early 1970s in changing the attitudes of government officials, museum administrators and scientists toward the subject.
Her ability to bring change occurred because Ray was willing to listen, even when others were not.
Contractors on a road project near Glenwood uncovered the remains of two dozen pioneers in 1971. The bones of the Caucasian settlers were reburied in a nearby cemetery. But, as was the practice at the time, the remains of a Native American woman and her infant were sent to the state archaeologist’s lab in Iowa City for study.
Pearson was livid. She went to the Capitol and demanded to see Ray. He invited her in and listened as she shared her concerns about the way Native American remains were treated like museum objects and were not treated with the same dignity the remains of European-Americans received.
Ray sought the input of others and listened to the concerns of museum curators and archeologists. In the end, he decided that while the public benefits from the museum displays and scientists’ studies, the human rights and spiritual concerns of Native Americans must take precedence.
Fast forward to 2022 for a couple of examples of governors listening — one half-heartedly, one with more compassion.
Gov. Kim Reynolds talked with Iowa parents and their daughters who wanted a law barring transgender girls from participating on girls’ athletic teams at Iowa high schools and at Iowa colleges and universities.
Unlike Ray, who sought out people with views differing from María Pearson’s, Reynolds did not invite transgender girls to her office to talk about the issue. You didn’t see photos of her with Gavy Smith, 15, a transgender girl from Decorah, who was born Gavin, a biological boy.
Had Reynolds invited Gavy and her mother to the Capitol, the governor would have learned Gavy has never been a standout athlete in any sport, not even miniature golf. Gavy would have talked about the joy derived from being part of a team and playing alongside friends.
Another leader wrestling with the issue of transgender athletes is Spencer Cox, the Republican governor of Utah.
Last week, he vetoed a bill similar to Iowa’s. It bars transgender students from participating in high school sports unless it is on a team comprised of athletes of the gender a trans kid had at birth. Cox’s veto letter provides important insight into his consideration of the issue.
“I believe in fairness an protecting the integrity of women’s sports,” he wrote. “Because there are logical and passionate arguments by many parties, finding compromise or common ground can be difficult.”
But Cox said he favors finding fair and compassionate ways to solve bitter disputes.
“I was heartened and encouraged to see legislators sitting down with LGBTQ advocates to work on a compromise that would both protect women’s sports and allow some participation for our most marginalized transgendered youth.”
The potential compromise would have created a commission of experts to help decide individual cases in which trans kids would be able to participate on a team.
“The concept was fairly simple,” Cox wrote. “For the very small number of transgender kids who are looking to find a sense of connection and community — without posing any threat to women’s sports — the commission would allow participation. However, the committee would prohibit participation in the rare circumstance of an outlier who could pose a safety threat or dominate a sport in a way that would eliminate competitive opportunities for biological females.”
On the last day of the legislative session, the compromise was thrown out shortly before midnight and a complete ban was substituted.
“I am not an expert on transgenderism,” Cox wrote. “I struggle to understand so much of it, and the science is conflicting. When in doubt, however, I always try to err on the side of kindness, mercy and compassion. I am learning so much from our transgender community. They are great kids who face enormous struggles.”
Cox noted that of 75,000 students participating in high school sports in Utah, only four are transgender. Of those four, only one is playing girls’ sports.
He concluded: “That’s what this is all about. Four kids who aren’t dominating or winning trophies or taking scholarships. Four kids who are just trying to find some friends and feel like they are part of something. Four kids trying to get through each day. Rarely has so much fear and anger been directed at so few.”
That insight comes when you listen.