Jack Reed | Gagen MacDonald

Insights & Events / Let Go & Lead / LG&L Interview

Jack Reed

Jan 29, 2019

Be kind, no surprises

Be kind, no surprises. Four words, two principles. This is the leadership mantra that has stuck with U.S. Senator Jack Reed since his days as a professor teaching at the United States Military Academy at West Point.

“The head of my department at West Point had two rules: be kind, and no surprises,” Reed says. “Those are two of the best rules for any organization. Treat people decently, and demand that they treat others decently. And if you have bad news, tell me. If it’s good news, you’ll be the first to tell me.”

Reed credits Col. Don Olvey, professor and head of the Department of Social Sciences at West Point, for being the proponent of what he calls “one of the best lessons” he ever received.

“Being kind is a principle of leadership that’s generally ignored,” says Reed. “There’s this idea that you have to be tough, you have to be the smartest, you have to be the most ruthless, but people come to resent this behavior. It’s not about being soft, dismissive or not holding people accountable. It’s about respect.” Respect is a principle Reed picked up through his years of service.

Reed, who is currently the ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee and senior U.S. Senator from Rhode Island, had his first brush with public service as a young cadet in 1967. After graduating from West Point and earning his commission as a second lieutenant in 1971, Reed served as an infantry officer in the 82nd Airborne Division.

In the Army, Reed held various leadership positions, including company command, where he relied on his core values of hard work, honesty, integrity and mutual respect to succeed. He also learned from those around him, including those he was charged with leading. Reed was especially influenced by the non-commissioned officers, his platoon sergeants and his first sergeants with whom he served.

“They could have let me fall on my face—and I would have—but they didn’t,” Reed says with a smile. “The only credit I give myself is that I was smart enough to listen to them. There’s a real lesson about the wisdom of people who are not necessarily the experts in the field or the ranking officers, but young soldiers who knew more about doing things than I would ever know. If you let them do it, they would do an excellent job.”

Reed points to his experiences in the Army for shaping his leadership perspective now.

“The Army was fundamental because it was about selfless service to the nation,” Reed says. “It’s not about your success, it’s about the success overall. Seeing the sacrifice of others is critical because you put your own effort in perspective properly.”

After his Army service, Reed attended the Harvard Kennedy School before teaching at West Point and Harvard Law School. He continued his life of public service serving as a Rhode Island democratic state senator, a member of the U.S. House of Representatives, and a member of the U.S. Senate, where he has served since 1997.

When thinking back on leaders who have influenced his service, Reed mentions Sir Winston Churchill and former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell. He also mentions former President George H. W. Bush as having had an influence on his own leadership style.

“[Former President Bush] pledged not to raise revenues and did it because he thought it was in the best interest of the country,’ Reed explains. ’It was a brave thing to do, and he paid for it [politically]. I think he understood that, but it didn’t deflect him from being a great example to the country, as a former president, of honesty and integrity,” Reed says.

Honesty, integrity and candor are the values Reed sees as must-haves for leaders, as well as for members of his staff in the Senate. It’s important that members of his staff share his ethos, collaborative spirit and commitment to public service. As a leader, Reed provides the experience necessary to put his shared vision into context for his staff and bring the team together.

“You have to hire people who have solid values and are committed to public good,’ Reed says. ’We find really talented people, and they do remarkable jobs, and then we talk about [the work]. It’s about encouraging people to come forward with their best efforts, with their best ideas, and working on things together to improve.”

Many of Reed’s staff members have been with him since he became a congressman in 1991. Listening to others and having mutual respect are key aspects for Reed’s success with his staff. The same rules apply for Reed when building trust between opposing members. He also emphasizes the important role his staff plays in this process.

“With the way the Senate operates, staff is so critical,” Reed says. “It’s the staff that works out the details before the principals get involved.”

Developing personal relationships between the staffs and then the principals allows Reed to make progress and find shared opportunities in the Senate.

“You find an area of mutual interest that affects the community of both colleagues, and then over time you develop personal relationships. You work with a person, they know you, they trust you. The same rules of kindness and no surprises apply,” says Reed.

Reed, who was born and raised in New England, is known for working on a strong bipartisan basis. On December 12, 2018, Reed, along with the late Senator John McCain, received the Jacob K. Javits Prize for Bipartisan Leadership for their work together on the Senate Armed Services Committee. He makes it a point to look for common ground with colleagues in the Senate in areas that may not be obvious at first glance.

“Take something like the National Endowment for the Arts,” says Reed. “They’re in every community in America. Look at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival for example, with the work they’re doing to try and bring artistic expression to every state in the country. If you can communicate [those shared values] to your colleague, then you can get past the initial perception that arts is just New York City and The Public Theater.”

In divided times, Reed believes people can do more as a nation to come together.

“One of the ways we can come together is to bring to the nation, from the country to the city, this shared experience. We have more in common than we think sometimes,” Reed says.

Another recent example of Reed’s ability to bring senators together is his work with the Museum and Library Services Act of 2018. Reed authored the bill, aimed at increasing federal resources for libraries and museums, with 23 bipartisan co-sponsors. The bill passed through the Senate unanimously.

At the end of the day, Reed finds the most fulfillment in helping others and representing his constituents.

“When someone comes up to me, particularly in Rhode Island, and says, ‘Thank you, you helped my mother get her Social Security benefits,’ that’s gratifying, because you’ve made a real, positive impact in a person’s life,” says Reed.

Reed’s passion for public service and commitment to public good are genuine. He’s not jaded by perceptions that are different from reality.

“At a time in which government is being disparaged so widely, we’ve shown that it can work,” he says. ’Not in some grandiose way, but in a way that affects people and gives them a sense that they have a place to go. That’s the most gratifying part of the job.”

Reed’s leadership approach lets go of the idea that being a good leader is all about him personally. It’s no surprise: working hard, being kind, moving the country forward and making progress are much more important.

Fast Facts

Current position::

U.S. Senator from Rhode Island Ranking Member, Senate Armed Services Committee


Washington, D.C.

Number of employees::


Number of years in current role::

21 years

Previous experiences::

U.S. House of Representatives, 1991–1997 Rhode Island State Senate, 1985–1991 Practicing attorney, 1982–1990 U.S. Army Reserves, 1979–1991 U.S. Army, 1967–1979

Five things he can’t live without::

Friends Family Dedicated colleagues His work; something valuable that’s bigger than himself Honor/Integrity

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