Good Leadership: Look Within For Needed Skills
Will Longwitz was sitting in his office in Washington, D.C., when Hurricane Katrina hit his home state of Mississippi in 2005.
Days passed and he hadn’t heard from his family and friends.
“It’s very hard to focus on your work at a federal agency in Washington, D.C., when your home state’s entire coastline has been washed away, half the state is without power and much of your state is at ground zero,” said Longwitz, a 2013 CSG Toll Fellow who was a federal civil prosecutor at that time and now serves as a Mississippi state senator.
Within a month of the storm, he arranged to get a work detail in Mississippi and was sent straight to work for the recovery commission set up by former Gov. Haley Barbour.
As the three-month work detail stretched to six months, Longwitz said, “I knew I needed to be home.”
He moved initially to the Gulf Coast area where he worked with local governments trying to figure out how to rebound from a natural disaster that wiped away virtually everything in its path.
“I saw a class of very civic-minded people who stood up even among the devastation and the ruins and they were determined to figure out a way to rebuild,” Longwitz said. “Being among those people and working with those people made a big impression on me and, I think, shaped my views about the importance of being a public servant and being involved.”
He initially had thought about serving his community of Madison as county judge—he ran his own law practice and believed he would be a good replacement for the retiring judge. He garnered enough votes in the primary election to make it to a runoff, but lost by 150 votes with 10,000 votes cast.
Just a few months after that November 2010 election, the long-serving state senator from Longwitz’s district announced he was retiring and people encouraged him to run.
He didn’t think the legislature was the direction he had wanted to go. He attended Georgetown University and had an internship with the federal government. He worked on Capitol Hill for the House Republican Leadership before attending law school at Ole Miss and serving as a civil prosecutor for the federal government.
“Just being on Capitol Hill gave me more than enough of legislatures,” Longwitz said. “I couldn’t imagine going through all that members of Congress go through when they agree to serve.”
But constituents convinced him to seek the state Senate office and he won that race in 2011.
While he never expected to seek public office, Longwitz has been pleasantly surprised by the differences between the state legislature and Congress. He was reminded of the biggest one when he visited a friend who remains a congressional staff member in Washington D.C.
“She asked me what I was involved in when I was in the legislature and I rattled off about a half dozen pieces of legislation,” he said. “She thought that’s what the whole legislature had passed in the entire year.”
But those pieces of legislation were just a few of the ones Longwitz had sponsored.
“They were things that directly affected people’s lives,” he said. “It is very satisfying to be in a place where, if you want to put in the time and effort and if you care enough to pass laws, you can pass laws.
“The only barrier when you are in the majority across the board is a self-imposed barrier,” he said.
That inner discipline spurs Longwitz’s leadership style.
“There’s a technique that coaches use when they’re coaching players and that is they tell the player to play within himself,” Longwitz said.
The Toll Fellowship program helped reinforce that fact.
“That weeklong boot camp helped me understand that everything I need to be a successful leader and legislator, I already have,” he said.
Those attributes, he said, are “confidence and diligence and an absolute disregard for the attacks of your detractors.”
He likes it better than he thought he would, after the experience serving as a congressional staffer on Capitol Hill. But it fits well with his law practice in Madison and allows him to serve his home state.
Longwitz and his wife Leigh have two daughters, Sophie, 6, and June, 4.