Denver Post Op-Ed: John Dingell was the type of servant leader my generation should emulate in Congress
The late John Dingell’s biography is an inspiring one. He joined Congress as one of the youngest representatives, only to leave as the longest-serving member. Prior to that, he served his country during World War II. Throughout his career, he fought for health care reform introducing his own national health insurance bill at the start of each Congress. And while Michigan was his home, I would be remiss not to mention that he was born in Colorado.
To be clear, I did not personally know John Dingell. In Congress — as in life — he served ahead of me.
But what strikes me the most is his final message to America. In his essay “My Last Words to America,” he calls on us to remember that elected representatives do not have power, we merely hold it: “In democratic government, elected officials do not have power. They hold power — in trust for the people who elected them.”
In doing so, Dingell describes a leadership philosophy that has become very rare in Washington, but one that I hope we, as a new class of representatives, can embrace: servant leadership.
As a former Army Ranger, I joined the largest class of military veterans serving in Congress in more than a decade, not to mention my colleagues from the national security and intelligence services. While our experience is varied, it is rooted in the shared ethos of servant leadership.
Servant leadership is the knowledge that you are a servant of those you lead. In the Army that often took simple forms: when you’re jumping out of the plane, you jump first and only then do your soldiers follow. In Congress, it means resisting the many pressures of Washington and always remembering who it is you work for.
At a time of ebbing faith in our politics and erratic (at best) stewardship in the White House, we need a new generation of servant leaders now more than ever. Leadership doesn’t mean being the smartest person in the room or dictating top-down orders, it means empowering and lifting up those around you and inspiring others to take the baton and keep running when you’re no longer able. Leadership borne not from one, but from many.
At 92, John Dingell might not have looked like a new generation of leadership, but let me assure you, he was.