Robert H. Michel (R-Ill.) spent 38 years in Congress, including 14 years as House Minority Leader. He exerted tremendous influence through his consensus-building skills and his ability to communicate in an authentic, passionate manner.
In this interview with Working Smart, Michel discusses his career as a dedicated public servant.
WS: You’ve held powerful posts in Congress, both as House Minority Leader and, for 12 years, as the ranking Republican on the Labor, Health, Education and Welfare Subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee. How would you describe your approach to leadership?
Michel: Leadership is listening. One of my father’s best pieces of advice was, “Listen 90 percent of the time and talk 10 percent.” I’ve sure found that to be the key to my leadership roles. And, I might add, I passed my father’s advice along to Newt Gingrich.
WS: Have you always been able to listen well?
Michel: I suppose it’s a skill that you can improve upon with practice. When you’re first starting out, you want to prove yourself. You want to adopt an I-know-it-all attitude. But then you get burned a few times and you realize it takes patience to listen. I’ve certainly become a better listener over time.
WS: What do you see as the similarities between a life in politics and a life in business?
Michel: To be successful in either field, you’ve got to have one thing: a gift for dealing with people. You can attend all the seminars in the world, but it comes down to treating people like you want to be around them. When I arrive in the office, I always greet people and say, “Good morning. How are you?” Sometimes I run into people who can’t deal with that. They think, “My God, he spoke to me.” And then they keep walking. They have nothing to say. They have no personality. The most successful people are quick to respond. They’ll engage you in conversation. They won’t put you off.
WS: To get re-elected 18 times and spend 38 years in Congress, you’ve clearly had to be persuasive. Can you pick one time when you were particularly persuasive?
Michel: Along with Rep. Stephen Solarz (D-N.Y.), I led the fight to send troops into the Persian Gulf. There’s nothing more satisfying than being in the well of the House and standing your ground in front of more than 400 of your peers. I gave a speech in which I drew upon my own experience as a combat infantryman in World War II. I remember thinking, ‘I was an enlisted man. And here I am, leading a debate to send another generation of enlisted men to war.’ I didn’t know how many casualties there would be—it could have been thousands. It was a very emotional argument.
WS: What made that speech so effective?
Michel: I was honest. I was speaking from experience. And I understood how others felt about this very hotly debated issue of sending people into harm’s way. Sometimes, it’s important to let your emotions surface. There’s nothing that can replace a little bit of passion.
WS: You have such a deep, resonant voice. Did that authoritative sound always come naturally to you?
Michel: I’ve always paid attention to the voice. If you don’t have a good-sounding voice, how are you going to succeed? Today, a pleasing voice is a job description. In Congress, I dealt with job training programs. And I found that regardless of the position, what emanates from your voice is a plus or a minus for you.
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