Service Series: A Conversation on Leadership with Governor Mitch Daniels
NOV 04, 2020

This Service Series blog post is a compilation of some of the top insights shared by President of Purdue University and former Governor of Indiana, Mitch Daniels, during his “Opening Keynote Conversation” that kicked off our recent 2020 Graduate Fellowship Conference. Drawing on his extensive experience across sectors, Daniels offered his thoughts on a multitude of timely topics from the impact of COVID-19 to the musts of strategic planning, as well as guidance for rising leaders in public service and beyond. Enjoy his unique perspectives to follow and click here or the video below to watch the full recording of Gov. Daniels interview with Dr. Randy Roberts, Distinguished Professor of History at Purdue University.

On role models in public service…

“I have to start by paying tribute to two terrific individuals – one is Dr. Roberts who we just heard from, one of Purdue’s finest scholars and one of the handful of those we are most proud and to whom we look for the most guidance. 

And of course, Don Rumsfeld is, to use a phrase that is used too loosely but that certainly applies in this case – a ‘great American’ – and has been for decades. And if you want to look for a genuine model and prototype for your own careers, you could not have chosen a better role model than him. And I trust your Fellowship Program allows you not only to learn about him, but to get some direct personal exposure to one of the most courageous, insightful and genuinely patriotic people I have ever known.”

On what is needed from leaders right now…

“[We need] people who can succeed (and right now the deck seems incredibly stacked through the polarity that we’re looking at) in trying to gather people together again.

In my one tour in elected office I was constantly preaching to our team that we are going to practice the politics of addition and never divisions. And not to win elections – that is a means to an end. I always try to remind people that we’re here to do big things and big change requires big majorities. You don’t achieve long lasting change with 50.1%. To do that, you have to find a way to gather people together under an interest they find as common and try to convey to them that your heart is with improving their lives.”

On the motivation to serve in public office…

I think that the ultimate satisfaction in life is a sense that one has made something better for a significant number of people. There are many opportunities to do that in all realms, but public service certainly offers that potential and that is why it is worth paying a price in personal aggravation and sometimes frustration. But that is certainly what I always found attractive about it. I was lucky enough early on – I had a curiosity about it as a young person and I was very lucky to come into the orbit of some tremendous leaders and that luck followed me along the way.”

On leadership learning…

“The two main ways that I learned some lessons were – working with people who brought high integrity, purpose and a big-game hunter’s instinct for doing significant things – not just being a caretaker to their jobs. [And] I’ve always encouraged young people who are interested in leadership to read biographies. By the way our moderator here is one of the great biographers of our day. Along with his books, there are many about the great figures who have preceded us and to me those are the greatest textbooks.

Sometimes the best lessons are the simplest. I am just now reminiscing about a very dark day for me when I had made a mistake that I thought brought discredit or difficulty to the White House staff I had been working with – and the then Secretary of Commerce, Malcolm Baldridge (to whom the Baldridge Quality Award is named) knew I was down in the dumps and he put his arm on my shoulder and said, ‘Just remember Mitch that good judgment comes from experience and experience comes from bad judgment.’ And since I’ve worn my share of bad judgments, I’ve accumulated some experience and taken consolation in his advice.” 

On working in different sectors – business, politics and academia…

“It’d be easy to make a lot of facile observations about how skills are totally portable and how the challenges are parallel and there’s something to that. But, these [sectors] are different worlds. I just feel grateful to have spent time in all three sectors of society and non-profit in two different ways. I think there are definitely lessons that apply that one can take from one post to the next and I think it’s very qualitatively a different job, but also to be respectful of the differences and never fail to remind yourself of what you don’t know in a new environment and organization. Keep your head about you there. I’ve seen a lot of people believe to their eventual detriment that they can take a formula that worked well in a previous position, life, company…and transplant it and force it on an operation which may have very fundamentally different characteristics. So, yes there are things that clearly add to one’s experience and broadens you, but I think you have to be careful not to loosely apply lessons from one life to the next.” 

On where he learned the most about leadership…

“I have been asked this question a lot and have given it thought. Of the times I’ve been asked this question people often think I will respond with something out of public life and of course those experiences come in handy, but by far where I have learned the most about leadership is business. You can’t hide from accountability – there’s always a market share to meet, a stock to meet. The problem with government and the non-profit world is you have to implant accountability. You don’t have the inherent competition, especially in government. Learning to make ends meet, that is to say to make certain that you know it’s not your money that you are spending and being absolutely committed to spending each dollar to maximum effects, is something that business helps train you for. Getting large numbers of talented and ambitious people pointed in a common direction and working effectively pulling their particular ore – that is the essence of trying to get something done successfully. I always encourage young people that I meet who say they want to serve the public and are very excited about government and politics – to build some skills and spend some time in the important sector of society, that is the private world and the one that pays the bills, and not only to build some credentials, but also some appreciation for what government’s actions can mean and often the negative effects that they can have.”

On COVID-19 and its impact on industry and institutions…

“It has been said for a long time, I think correctly, that cataclysmic events and crises and so forth don’t so much create new trends as they accelerate trends that were already in motion. You can see that in higher ed and so many other areas. Think about healthcare. Telehealth had been inching along and now it is going to be a big piece of the future. Likewise, in higher ed there are two things readily apparent: as they say with different modalities of teaching, whether they are purely virtual or more as we see now, a hybrid or blend of in-person and technologically delivered education. Higher ed is going to look very different more quickly than it would have had this not happened. Clearly this was coming anyway and will become a much bigger part of the future starting right now. Those who master it well will do well and those who resist it or deny its reality will pay a price.” 

On strategy…

The smartest thing I ever heard about strategy is that it is defined by what it leaves out not what it incorporates and if you can’t name the important things that aren’t there then it is not strategy – it is a wish list trying to accommodate everybody and nothing real will happen. It has to be about making choices.” 

On American leadership in 2020 and beyond…

“The year we are in has demonstrated in a way even more pronounced than should have been obvious already: what the challenges of authentic leadership are and more than anything, a willingness and a determination to think about the entire public interest in a position of high responsibility. 

By definition one cannot look at the world through a single lens and cannot respond to a single set of inputs and demands. The whole essence of positions of high and broad authority is to try to integrate, balance and prioritize a myriad of interests. 

I think Don Rumsfeld is right to have created a program like this. As I understand, you could not nominate yourself for this, somebody else had to identify you. As I said before, we’ve had tough times in our history before. Some people’s sense of history doesn’t any longer help them understand that, but you Fellows probably do. But in some of the darkest moments – even darker than this one, somehow America has called into service men and women who have found a way to lead us out of it. I am going to assume that some of you are in that group.

The last thing I’ll say…is that I don’t know what the future holds but…I hope we can find leaders who will fashion a new vocabulary of reconciliation and unity that will help their fellow citizens recognize the folly and fundamental injustice of some of the things that have crept into the culture. That’ll be a tough assignment, but the Rumsfeld Foundation Fellows are the types of people that I know that America has always found in its difficult moments and we are very fortunate with Secretary Rumsfeld’s help that it has found each of you.


The text in this blog is excerpted from Governor Daniels’ interview with Dr. Randy Roberts of Purdue University for the opening session of the Foundation’s 2020 Graduate Fellowship Conference on September 8th, 2020. Read more about the events of the 2020 Graduate Fellowship Conference in our press release and learn more about our program here.


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