Former Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton was a Center for Integrative Leadership Executive Leadership Fellow from 2019 to 2021. As part of his fellowship, Dayton discussed his approach to leadership in a series of interviews with Associate Professor Kathy Quick, the Center’s Academic Co-Director.
Considering the Recent Decline in Leadership Ethics
My family's ethic was rooted in an understanding that we were very, very fortunate with what we'd been given, and we had a social responsibility to give some of that back. I remember my uncle, Ken Dayton, was really sincere about his business ethics. He was one of the leaders that said, “Can companies give at least 5% of their profits to the community?” He leaned into those challenging conversations and said, “We should want to pay more taxes because that means our businesses are doing better, and if we're doing better, then we have an obligation to pay more taxes to support the community.”
These days big businesses pay zero taxes or get a refund on their taxes, and they're proud of it. They go to the country club and brag about the fact that they got away with paying nothing. That should be considered un-American. It should be something that people are embarrassed about, but it's not now. These days, in business or in politics, the trend is often to do whatever you can get away with to your advantage, even if that makes things harder on everybody else. It's become the prevailing ethic in our country, and I think it's eventually going to have catastrophic consequences.
I find it alarming that when I speak with younger people, they often say that this brand of ethics is normal. This is what they grew up with – these are the waters they swim in from the beginning. It’s concerning that they can't look back and see the contrast between what I personally thought was the prevailing ethic in the country to what is now the case. There's no frame of reference somebody can have unless they get it through teaching or mentorship. Polluted waters are now the norm when it comes to ethics.
Reflections on Social Inequity and Public Service
I was always conscious of where my revulsion to this lack of ethics came from. When I was teaching in New York City, I saw the incredible disparity between what I had been born into and what my students had been born into. I remember having a visceral reaction that this is wrong. This violates my principles, my values, and my ethics.
With my students, it was just a terrible situation that they were assigned by accident of birth. Where you land on this planet has such an effect on what your options are and what your possibilities are. During my summer training, I lived in an apartment with a family in a public housing project, and those were not even the worst conditions that some of my students experienced. You go through a stifling hot New York summer with no ventilation – there were just windows on one side and no central air conditioning – and you realize that this is hell. There's no way out of that. It’s really no wonder that some kids get warped by that experience and then have no hope.
I compare that with what I grew up in and all the options I had in life: it's just so grotesquely unfair. It makes me question, why is there any resistance to $15/hour minimum wages? Why is there any resistance to things as basic as that?
Those five years I spent working as a teacher in New York City and as a social worker and administrator of a social service agency in Boston are ultimately what inspired me to go work for Minnesota Senator Walter Mondale. I realized that what we were seeing in this work were the casualties of the injustices of American society, and that if I wanted to change anything, government was a source for change, for better or for worse. That potential for changemaking got me interested in government. When I was on Senator Mondale’s Washington staff, I wasn’t consciously thinking, “I'm going to run for office.” I just considered myself an activist at that point, which of course ended up being my first taste of government work.
Self-Awareness in Politics and Leadership
During my time in public service, I came to understand there's a certain unreasonable grandiosity that often accompanies seeking public office, especially high public office. I’d say, “There are no saints in politics, only shades of sinners.” There are people who are solely in politics for their own self-aggrandizement, and then there are people who really do have at least some sincere desire to serve the people that elected them and make the country better.
Yet, I have seen so many politicians who were able to be “successful” without exercising much self-awareness. Self-awareness is certainly not a prerequisite to governing, and it’s not necessarily even an advantage. I think that realistic self-awareness is simply not a virtue many politicians practice or even value. I've personally had plenty of lessons in self-awareness through my own failings. When you reach my age, you go through so many failures. Hopefully I've taken those as opportunities to self-assess my life. I don't think older people are inherently wise, but all that life experience is an opportunity to learn and to hopefully grow.
Ultimately, when I think about leaning in as a leader, I’m reminded of John Kennedy's Profiles in Courage, which shares stories of people who made the decision to risk – and in many cases give up – their political careers to do the right thing. That is one of the ultimate manifestations of political courage. It reminds me of when the vote on same-sex marriage was happening in the Minnesota Legislature. There were some Democrats for whom that vote was almost fatal, given their districts out in rural Minnesota. What amazed me was that even when the votes were there to pass it anyway, there were people who voted for it because they believed it was the right thing to do.
That's where somebody's ethics really do take hold and guide leaders’ decisions. When we practice self-awareness and hold on to a strong foundation of ethics, there's a moral compass that rises above all other thoughts and considerations. Those are profiles in courage.
*Edited for clarity.