Don't Doggy Paddle the Potomac

Originally published in the Rapid City Journal, Saturday, December 11, 2021


NCSL Emerging Leaders Class of 2021 and Sponsors at Mt Vernon

I recently embarked on a three-day journey to Virginia as part of the National Conference of State Legislatures Emerging Leadership Program. As one of the forty-four legislators selected nationwide, it was an unbelievable opportunity to study communication, successful whip strategies, and servant leadership. We also heard from a panel of past president pro temps and house speakers from throughout the United States and visited with Brigadier General (Ret.) Allyson Solomon USAF, and author Morris Morrison.

Sandwiched amid this rich curriculum, we completed one session at Mt Vernon in an experience entitled Washington's Cabinet. Washington's Cabinet puts participants in leadership roles of people who were integral in the foreign policy decisions made in 1790s Philadelphia and determine the fate of the young United States. The group must actively work with colleagues to manage international and domestic crises in various roles. The exercise is intense and fast-paced. Everyone utilizes individual iPads for instant updates on motivations, media, health epidemics, and threats of civil unrest. Based on the role an individual is assigned, they receive different information. Collaboration, organization, and direct verbal communication individually and in groups are critical to ensure the success of our country. The activity lasts about an hour and a half, with many decisions that must be made, bills that must be passed (or potentially vetoed), foreign relations regarding wars and trade, all while some members are running for elections. Others are actively assigned to undermine the government. All activities overlap, are timed, and if something is unresolved, it irrevocably affects history. This advanced legislative training tool and role-playing exercise has nine outcomes based on the players' actions and decisions, not the least among which could be the United States re-entering war with Britain or the impeachment of President Washington himself.

Just before this exercise, we toured the Mt Vernon estate. We stood where Washington stood. We viewed the Potomac from his porch. We looked at the key to the Bastille given to him by the Marquis de Lafayette. We peered into the formal dining room, Washington's study, and the room where he took his last breath. And now, a short distance away, we were gathered in what is now the Rubenstein Leadership Hall, Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington.

My classmates are all emerging leaders currently serving in state legislatures throughout the United States. All forty-four of us were given single assignments as US Senators, foreign ambassadors, Native American leaders, members of the press, the Presidential Cabinet, and then, of course…President Washington.

Some people love games. Card games. Video games. Board games. Role-playing games. While I respect game-playing passion, I am not one of those people. During my chagrin in anticipation of this activity, the voice of Dr. Joseph Sloltz, Director of the George Washington Leadership Institute, rang out, "Selected as President George Washington… Senator Jessica Castleberry."

Those who know me well know there is no choice in this situation. As much as one might want to doggy paddle the Potomac, this is what leaders sign up for. Selected from a prestigious group of peers, sink or swim, I was now George Washington.

For the next hour and a half, George Washington delegated, deliberated, debated, and at times downright demanded. (Madame) President directed the cabinet, discerned friend from foe, might've doubted a directive or two but kept going. By the culmination of the game, here were the results.

We upheld peace in the United States and our promises to France and aided them during their war with England while maintaining neutrality and good trade relations with both countries. Our administration boosted economic development and established a strong standing army to support our fledgling nation.

I share this story today for three reasons:

  1. We often hear when a legislator is selected for a leadership program, and this is a glimpse into that experience.

  2. Many people feel called to leadership or to run for office. This is encouragement for those who doubt themselves to avoid the urge to doggy paddle away across the Potomac.

  3. For at least 90 minutes during the first week in December 2021, the United States of America hypothetically had a President from the great State of South Dakota. All things considered, it turned out pretty good.

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