You aren’t born a leader, says Lingle, you become one
Former governor charts her path to politics for nisei veterans series
WAIKAPU — Linda Lingle’s path to becoming governor of Hawaii started with a drinking fountain at the Mitchell Pauole Center.
Lingle was a young journalist on Molokai when the senior citizens who met at the center came up to her one day to complain about the fountain, which was spewing hot water because the county wasn’t paying for electricity to run cold water. So, Lingle approached Molokai’s County Council member to discuss the problem. He blew her off.
“I said to myself, ‘You know what? I’m going to run against this guy,’ “ Lingle recalled. “That’s how I got started in politics. . . . Sometimes you just are an accidental leader. And I was certainly an accidental politician who became an accidental leader.”
Lingle, who would go on to become a five-term council member, the youngest and first woman mayor of Maui County and Hawaii’s first female governor, shared her takes on leadership at the Kahili Golf Course on Sunday. Lingle was the final speaker in the Nisei Veterans Memorial Center’s yearlong “Leadership Series,” which has included former Govs. George Ariyoshi, John Waihee and Neil Abercrombie, as well as current Gov. David Ige.
Lingle said Sunday that leadership styles have changed over time. More women are stepping into positions of power, and ideas of leadership are different among the younger generation. However, Lingle believed that “the essence of leadership doesn’t change.”
“To be a leader, you have to have a vision that has purpose,” Lingle said. “You have to be able to communicate that vision effectively, and you have to be able to explain clearly to everyone, how do you get from wherever you are to that vision I just described to you?”
Lingle pointed to her 1998 campaign for governor as an example.
“I couldn’t just tell people, ‘Vote for me, I’m a Republican,’ right? Because I’d lose,” she said to laughter. “So I had to come up with something else. And what I believed and what I believe today is that a two-party system of government is to the benefit of the people. Things will just be better. A more balanced political system just leads, I think, to a better quality of life overall.”
But laying out the path toward her vision “was the hardest part” about running for governor in a state that hadn’t chosen a Republican for the job since 1962. But after she lost to incumbent Gov. Ben Cayetano by 1 percent of the vote in the 1998 general election, people were much more ready to believe when she ran in 2002 — this time successfully — and set precedents as both the first woman and first Jewish governor of Hawaii.
“You had to convince people it’s possible, because no one will give you money to run, no one will volunteer for you, walk door to door for you, if they don’t believe it’s even possible,” said Lingle, who served two terms through 2010.
But before she became governor, Lingle had to convince the people of Molokai that a 27-year-old “haole Republican from the Mainland” could represent them on the Maui County Council. Lingle knew she wanted to live on Molokai the moment she got off the plane and was surrounded by the sweeping fields of Hoolehua homestead land, and later as she walked through town and noticed that everyone just knew each other.
She started the Molokai Free Press, the island’s only community newspaper at the time. She had been living on the island for four years when she decided to run for the council, which held partisan elections at the time. So, Lingle met with Mitsuo “Mits” Watanabe, then head of the Republican Party on Molokai, to lay out her plans.
“He looks at me and goes, ‘No more chance,’ “ Lingle said. “Can you imagine? Twenty-seven. I’m just starting. Well, that motivated me quite a lot. He didn’t think it was possible for someone like me, and a leader has to be able to convince people that whatever your vision is, it’s really possible. So I had a lot of experience going back to those days on Molokai of having to prove to people that indeed it was possible.”
Lingle was elected to the council in 1980, where she served until she ran for mayor in 1990 and won, succeeding Mayor Hannibal Tavares. Lingle became the first female mayor of Maui County and also the youngest at 37 years old. She served as mayor until 1999.
Lingle said that what she’s learned during her time as mayor, governor and chairwoman of the Hawaii Republican Party is that “the real key to being a good leader is to assemble a good team of people,” and not just those who will agree with everything the leader says.
“People of strong character, people who are intelligent, who are team players, who are willing to question you, but once a decision is made, they’re all in to carry out that decision,” Lingle said. “People who really believe strongly in the vision.”
Lingle’s experiences are also the reason that she doesn’t believe people are born leaders.
“You become a leader in fits and starts and ups and downs, successes, failures,” Lingle said. “It’s how you bounce back from a failure. It’s how you take advantage of an opportunity for success that was there for everyone else, but they didn’t take it. You took it.”
The former governor said that her most recent leadership position was as captain of the USTA women’s 65+ team at the Oahu club in Hawaii Kai this year. When an audience member asked if she planned to run for office again, Lingle joked that “my only running is on the baseline” on the tennis court.
“You know how they say there’s a time and a season for everything?” Lingle said. “I’ve had my time and my season, and I loved every minute of it. People ask me often, ‘Did you love being in politics?’ I loved it. I couldn’t wait to get up in the morning and see what was going to happen.”
* Colleen Uechi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.