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Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton worked the aisle shaking legislators' hands after he delivered his State of the State speech on February 6, 2013.

Jeff Wheeler, Star Tribune

Dayton's leadership style: Right for the times?

  • Article by: LORI STURDEVANT
  • Star Tribune
  • February 9, 2013 - 8:03 PM

In a State of the State speech Wednesday expected to be a full-throated defense of his budget plan, Gov. Mark Dayton said something fairly remarkable:

"The genius of our system of governance is that no one gets to have it all her or his way. Starting with the governor.

"Some will characterize any legislative changes in my budget as my loss. I don't see it that way at all. ... Whatever outcome does the most to improve the lives of the most Minnesotans makes winners of us all."

I tried, but I couldn't imagine Tim Pawlenty, Jesse Ventura, Arne Carlson or even Rudy Perpich, Dayton's political mentor, uttering those words this early in a legislative session. Or if any of them did, my mental ear can't conjure them sounding as self-effacing and earnest as Dayton did.

Dayton's a different kind of leader. He's neither the commanding military general nor the superconfident CEO nor the charismatic celebrity.

He's more the guy up the block whom you've known forever -- and whose family you've known forever -- who kindly but persistently pesters you to join the local park cleanup committee or donate to the new playground fund. If you're living in the fanciest house on the block, he's at your door early and often. And without him telling you so, he gives you a sense that he's giving more than he's asking of you.

Dayton just turned 66, and he's been in Minnesota public life long enough to relate recently that as an aide to Perpich, he was once booted off the House floor by Speaker Martin Sabo. That was 13 speakers ago.

His old-shoe seniority makes him an unlikely exemplar of the new-style leadership that's being academically examined at the University of Minnesota's Center for Integrative Leadership. But the center's executive director, Laura Bloomberg, says that in many ways, Dayton fills the 21st-century leadership bill that the center is developing.

"I heard a lot of Dayton saying, 'We can get there together,'" Bloomberg said when I asked for her State of the State review. "He sees that governing this state is a shared responsibility. It's not about him winning at all costs.

"The times absolutely cry out for that kind of leadership."

Bloomberg and others at the leadership center (former university President Robert Bruininks among them) have been advancing the idea that today's biggest challenges won't be well met by traditional top-down leadership or winner-take-all competition.

The problems are too complex for that, and the stakes are too high. If the winner who took it all turns out to be wrong, trouble worsens. With problems like an insufficient supply of skilled workers, increasing poverty and income inequality and rapid climate change bearing down, Minnesota can't afford mistakes.

Leadership scholars are touting a new model -- the inclusive, collaborative, coalition-building leader. The one who gets you to help build that playground.

"Today's best leaders are those most adept at empowering others, not the most charismatic or strong," Bloomberg said.

They're people who reach out to those who disagree, and who understand that truly listening to opponents is a sign not of weakness, but of wisdom. They're willing to forsake the comfort of pleasing their own flock to serve a larger good.

"If faced with an either/or proposition, a real leader rejects it," she said. Rather, the leader keeps searching for a third way.

Bloomberg did not say -- nor would I -- that Dayton has mastered all of those newfangled leadership traits. But she noted one passage in Wednesday night's speech. The governor said that if his controversial tax reform scheme is Plan A and the status quo is Plan B and those are his only choices, he'll stick with A -- but he's open to a better Plan C.

"I thought that was fabulous," she said.

It is -- if his actions in coming weeks match his words.

Dayton's tax plan needs revision. It falls with punitive force on businesses that provide heretofore untaxed services to other businesses. And it sneaks higher taxes into just about everything Minnesotans buy, in a way that hits the lower-income people Dayton says he wants to spare.

If he's the new-style leader that the times demand, he'll stay off the defensive. He'll listen carefully to his plan's critics. He'll seek alternatives, and not just from DFLers. He'll look beyond the state's immediate needs to its long-range future and help others to do the same.

In addition to her role at the Center for Integrative Leadership, Bloomberg is the interim associate dean at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs. She's plenty busy. But my guess is that if Dayton were to call her for leadership advice, she'd make time to return the call.

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Lori Sturdevant is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist.

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