Three Lessons from the Longest Serving Senator

Posted 06.28.2010

Sen-byrd Senator Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia died in the early morning hours of Monday. As reported by Adam Clymer in the New York Times, he was 92 and served 51 years in the U.S. Senate following six years in the House of Representatives. That made him the longest serving member of Congress ever.

I grew up in West Virginia, worked for one of its governors and am a student of politics so I watched Senator Byrd in action for most of my life. Some of us with ties to the state call it Byrdland because it seems like every other building or road is the Senator Robert C. Byrd something or other. Much to the chagrin of many but to the delight of most West Virginians, Byrd channeled over a billion dollars in federal projects to the state when he was chairman of the Senate Appropriations committee.

Like all of the rest of us human beings, Byrd wasn’t perfect. As a young man, he joined and then quit the Ku Klux Klan (and, as Clymer notes in his article, spent years apologizing for and regretting his membership). He became a consistent supporter of civil rights legislation only in the last half of his career.  He certainly had an ego as all of those buildings and roads with his name on them will attest. That said, in reading the Byrd obituaries this morning, there are three lessons from his life that I think leaders should consider:

Build Mastery:  Byrd was widely acknowledged as one of the most knowledgeable people ever on the rules and history of the U.S. Senate. He made it his job to learn and master the nuances of his working environment. At the peak of his career, that base of knowledge enabled him to be a leader of the institution and drive the agendas of his party, his president and himself. Leaders are more effective when they build mastery in their operating realm.

Be Clear About Your Passion: From a professional standpoint, Byrd appeared to have two primary passions. One was the Senate. The other was West Virginia. (I may have those in the wrong order.)  Will he be remembered on a national basis as a Senator who changed history in some significant way? Probably not. Will he be remembered for a long time to come in West Virginia? Most definitely and not just because of the things that were named after him. He was passionate about improving the lives of the people of his state.  There aren’t many political leaders who did more for their state than Byrd did. Leaders who are clear about their passion and stick with it can get a lot done.

Be Open to Growth:  Byrd grew and expanded his point of view over the years. He went from being a member of the KKK to ultimately being a supporter of civil rights. As the Clymer article notes, he went from viewing Ted Kennedy as a bitter rival to weeping at the funeral procession of the man who became his good friend. Late in his career, Byrd stunned many of the powers that be in West Virginia when he loudly said that the state would have to move beyond its crippling dependence on coal. Leaders who continue to grow can remain relevant much longer than most would predict.

Rest in peace, Senator. The people of West Virginia will remember you.