A Government Fixer’s Tricks of the Trade
Bill Leighty served Virginia in a variety of ways, including as chief of staff to two governors. He knew the rules of management — and he knew when to stretch or break them.
In common with this rule, it is no surprise that William H. Leighty, a civil servant who spent nearly three decades in the bureaucratic folds of Virginia government, is almost totally unknown outside his state and not very well known to most people within it.
Most of the work Bill Leighty did — tax adviser, transportation commissioner, director of the state retirement board, chief of staff to two governors, creator of a state management system widely recognized as one of the best in the country — was done under the supervision of elected officials who got virtually all of the credit for the results that transpired. But it’s arguable that Leighty’s accomplishments over his long career in public service have had more positive impact on life in Virginia than those of virtually everyone he worked under in his decades of employment by the state.
How does a relatively obscure bureaucrat manage that? After a decade in academia following his retirement from the state government system, Leighty has chosen to tell us. In a forthcoming book that he is tentatively calling Capitol Secrets, Leighty documents the strategies and maneuvers he practiced successfully from the late 1970s, when he started out as a legislative aide in the Virginia Senate, to the end of 2007, when he retired as chief of staff to Gov. Timothy M. Kaine.
At the end of his book, Leighty offers a few pieces of advice that may not seem new to many readers. He advises aspiring public servants to tell the truth, share credit, pursue continuous improvement and pay close attention to agency finances. But in the earlier chapters that detail his wins and losses in bureaucratic life, he paints the self-portrait of an exceptionally creative and adroit public servant who knew what all the rules were but also knew when to stretch or even break them in the service of the ultimate public good.
AMONG THE STRETCHES HE DESCRIBES are modest but impressive bursts of pure cleverness. Needing to raise half a million dollars so that the state could buy a piece of land for a bridge that would save a railroad on Virginia’s Eastern Shore, Leighty told a skeptical superior that the property would otherwise go to a noxious seafood processing facility likely to be infested with seagulls. The state bought the land.
Struggling with a stubborn governor who refused to change the route of his official car to avoid a potential terrorist attack, Leighty told him that if the attack was real and the governor died, Leighty himself was perfectly capable of running the state. It was a bluff, of course, but the governor agreed to alter the route.
Some of the stretches shade into little white falsehoods. Upbraided by a high-level Army aide-de-camp for failing to produce a black sedan for a military motorcade, Leighty informed him that a new regulation mandated the use of different-colored cars to reduce the likelihood of a terrorist attack. This was pure fiction, and Leighty conceivably could have been prosecuted for lying to a federal official, but the event came off perfectly and Leighty was given a promotion.
If a crisis situation ever called for some benevolent trickery, it was Leighty’s time in Louisiana as an emergency expert brought in to help with the response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005. At one point, desperate for airplanes to import firefighters to help with rescue efforts, but stymied by local officials, Leighty picked up the phone and pretended to talk to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. In actuality, he was calling his own cellphone number. But the firefighters got there. At another moment of the crisis, when New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin was reluctant to sign an order calling for additional outside assistance, Leighty persuaded Nagin’s chief of staff to forge the mayor’s signature. He got away with that one as well.
Leighty could play hardball with the best of them, on large issues as well as small ones. When the railroad freight giant Conrail refused to give up a small amount of track to further the state’s plan to create a new commuter rail network, Leighty convinced a member of the Virginia congressional delegation to propose an amendment challenging Conrail’s ownership of Washington’s Union Station. The amendment was withdrawn, but soon afterward, Conrail agreed to cooperate. When Leighty was Gov. Mark Warner’s chief of staff, Warner’s predecessor, the abrasive James S. Gilmore, organized a rally to protest Warner’s tax-reform initiative. Leighty pulled out a notebook detailing a number of questionable decisions and policies that came out of the Gilmore administration, and showed it to one of Gilmore’s confidants. The rally was canceled.
IF ALL OF THIS INVITES THE CRITICISM that Leighty was a crafty practitioner of situational ethics, it also suggests that in each of these episodes, the ends he sought more than justified the means he employed. He also knew there were situations in which restraint trumped cleverness. Although one of Leighty’s fundamental maxims for a bureaucrat is to stand up to authority, he had a keen sense of where that boldness needed to stop. On one occasion, after Warner spent hours criticizing his performance, the governor asked Leighty why he wasn’t pushing back against a sustained harangue. The chief of staff replied that “at no point will I ever tell you to go get screwed. … I am the Gomer Pyle of the Warner administration.” A superior bureaucrat may possess a bagful of tricks, but humility has to be in the bag along with them.
Leighty wasn’t just a master of tactical cleverness, he was a bureaucrat with a strategy. When he needed votes on a bill from a balking legislator or a policy move from an agency head, he didn’t just ask for support. He asked what favor he might dangle that would persuade them to go along. Usually they came up with something, Leighty and his boss delivered the favor, and almost always the deal held.
Along with occasional trickery and a willingness to play hardball, Leighty was a devout believer in bipartisanship. When he came in as Warner’s chief of staff and had the responsibility of choosing agency heads, he rehired nearly all of those who had served in the two previous Republican administrations. Bipartisanship was a crucial reason why Leighty was able to remain in the role of chief of staff for two successive Democratic governors, Warner and Kaine, both of whom liked to tout their own bipartisan credentials. Nationwide, the average tenure for a gubernatorial chief of staff is about 17 months. Leighty lasted five and a half years.
But Leighty’s commitment to bipartisanship was just one piece of his fundamental approach to public management at any level: the crucial importance of building relationships, not just across the aisle but with everyone — elected executives, legislators, agency heads, local leaders and citizen activists pursuing a change in policy. He was a believer in using every possible tactic to further them, inviting them out to lunch, sending them birthday cards, remembering the names of their spouses and children and where the children went to school. “To have a successful career,” he writes in his conclusion, “you need a network. … Your network shouldn’t be limited to only those who hold the same beliefs as you do.” It was in large part clever networking that kept Leighty in positions of public influence for such a long time.
He couples his tribute to networking with one final explanation of his success: his refusal to hold grudges. “It isn’t easy to forgive sometimes,” he admits. “But the act of forgiveness greatly exceeds the burden of carrying a grudge. Keeping score and getting even unnecessarily saps your energy. … Forgiveness allows you to define who you are.”
Not everyone in public life will have the patience, cleverness or skill to emulate the practices that worked for Bill Leighty. But taken as a whole, they are a formula for success — not just in government but in any enterprise, public or private, that requires people to work with, cooperate with and manage other people.