Left to right: 2021 Jeff Ubben Posse Fellow Emma Tavangari; Governor Gavin Newsom.
Left to right: 2021 Jeff Ubben Posse Fellow Emma Tavangari; Governor Gavin Newsom.

Ubben Posse Fellow Interviews: Governor Gavin Newsom

Fall 2021 | National

The Jeff Ubben Posse Fellows Program awards five exceptional Posse Scholars $10,000 each and the chance to spend 4-6 weeks during the summer shadowing and learning from a major industry leader. The interview below with Gavin Newsom, Governor of the State of California, was conducted by Posse Scholar Emma Tavangari, now in her junior year at the University of California, Berkeley, who worked in the Office of Governor Gavin Newsom as a 2021 Jeff Ubben Posse Fellow. The conversation has been edited and condensed.

EMMA: I always think it’s nice to ask about formative years in the beginning of an interview. Can you describe your childhood as it relates to leadership—more specifically, some of your early influences in leadership?

GOVERNOR GAVIN NEWSOM: I think the most formidable example was my mother. Single mother, a teenager when she was pregnant with me—she was 20 when she had me. Married, two kids, divorced very young. She came from no wealth, no privilege whatsoever—relationship-wise or financially. All she had was grit, hard work, and determination; she never complained, never explained, and that was a very impactful leadership experience that taught me to take responsibility and take accountability. While in many respects she was a quote-unquote ‘victim,’ she did not instill that in me in childhood—quite the contrary. And so perhaps that is the most impactful and formidable leadership lesson that I learned. The second, leadership in the political sense, those examples came from my father. Particularly in terms of his close relationships and friendships with writers, poets, academics and, importantly, with leaders, broadly defined—including, but not limited to, political leaders like judges, DAs, former mayors, etc. And so that instilled in me a political construct—there’s a picture of him and Rob Kennedy over there [in the Governor’s office], when he was running for elected office—so that created a public service framework. While Mom created that framework of accountability, responsibility that shaped my belief that I had agency and that I wasn’t a victim of fate.

And so I guess, in that sense, when you’re talking about accountability, responsibility, and agency—are those the qualities that make a leader? Are there other qualities that come to mind?

I think that they’re the most important. If you can’t take responsibility, you can’t lead. If you can’t demonstrate your own capacity to manifest what you’re promoting or aspiring to—that is, if you don’t walk the talk—then I think that substantially diminishes your leadership capacity. I think that’s foundational. Everybody has a different definition of leadership—I’ve got like 25 leadership books in the back, and each one has a different variant on leadership—but I think that responsibility, accountability, agency are the most foundational. And secondly, I think there’s a distinction in leadership which can be found anywhere, and it’s not often what we think about when we think on leadership, but it’s that you don’t have to be something to do something. Leadership is not a position, it’s not a title, it’s not ‘mayor’ or ‘councilman.’ That’s a distinction I think of when I reflect on moral versus formal leaders. The most transformative leaders, to put it in perspective, are those that exercise their moral authority. They’re not inconsequential, but some of the least consequential leaders are the ones that just exercise their formal authority, i.e., Donald Trump. The more you use your formal authority, the less you have it. The opposite: those who use their moral authority like Dr. King, Nelson Mandela, Gandhi, they show how important the distinction between moral and formal authority is. Especially for young people—they are often those who immediately jump to equate leadership to positions of formal authority, though that’s often not the case. Though today, this might be fading out, probably due to social media where there’s a larger sphere of influencers and people who don’t have formal authority dictating the norms of the landscape—so this could be changing, and that’s probably healthy.

I can certainly see that change—leadership gets more metastasized across platforms, and digital movements, they don’t really have the kind of prescriptive positions of formal leadership that you’re talking about. But that brings me to my next question—what happens when you, you’re leading a state with such a wide swath of opinions, huge differences demographically, and some might say a large degree of divisiveness, depending on your perspective. Where do you find that intersection of moral and formal authority? That is, how do you prioritize serving the people in that kind of formal sense, versus your agenda-setting, versus this kind of obligation to a larger sense of morality?

Well I think that there are certain things that are universal, and that I don’t see through the lens or prism of politics, even when I’m particularly passionate about a certain issue area. And forgive me, this might be lazy, but this is short so I’ll try to kind of just sum it up—you know, all of us want to be respected, regardless of our political stripes, regardless of our identity. All of us want to be protected, we want to be safe. We want to wake up, send our kids to school, we want them to be safe. All of us want to be connected to something bigger than ourselves—maybe that’s a church, a relationship to something like the Boys & Girls Club, to a sports team, to our family. I think that you look through that prism, and that lens, that’s what we share in common—it’s our need to love, the way we love our family, our community, our sense of place. All those things are universal. Right there is where we can get an approximate to answering your question, of where those two kinds of leadership really coincide.

So those universal things that we strive towards—do you see those as the ends of public service, to ensure those universals for everyone?

I think leadership, broadly defined, is a kind of service. We can sort of simplify leadership down to that essence. You know the old paradigm of leadership was top- down, command and control: in its contemporary, we can see that as a kind of reflection of Donald Trump, and Trumpism. That top-down paradigm contrasts with the most impactful and sustainable leadership, which is not command-and-control but climate control, where a great leader creates the conditions for people to live their lives and be fully expressive. So it’s climate control, not command-and-control that I define as leadership. To me, this construct is more organic, there’s a kind of sustainable or generative framework that is not manufactured in any respect. I think often about leadership and citizenship: we don’t talk a lot about citizenship, and we really need to. I think it was Justice Brandeis that said that, “In a democracy, the most important office is the office of citizen.” Which is a wonderful expression. That said, I think it’s unfortunate that we have a paradigm now that is: “You vote, I decide.” That’s running up against our limits—that’s why populism sprung up around the rest of the world, because people don’t feel respected, connected, or represented. And so I think in addition to that climate control, we need active, not inert citizenship, real participatory democracy, and a leader who is creating conditions for civic engagement where people have more voice and more choice. That paradigm of leadership in a governmental sense is profoundly unique and should be promoted.

That’s certainly true. Let’s maybe try to bring that sort of abstract down to a context that’s more familiar—say just California. Fundamentally, how do you think we can center citizenship more here, in this state?

There are actually quite a few examples of just that, a lot of international models being piloted right now—but of course, just like here, people run up against limits. You need more than just talking heads with this, you need a real representative democracy that fights for the majority, not just the whims of the minority. That’s why our founding fathers were so insistent on creating different branches of government, different houses of Congress… but anyway, needless to say, I have been thinking about this both in the abstract and with the day-to-day. The reality is we don’t have all the answers. I’ve made a few starts—passing a “People’s budget,” for example. We have to keep stabilizing our thinking on this. That’s what we tried to do with the California Volunteers program: that, to me, is all about active, participatory citizenship. It’s about shared experience and addressing issues that aren’t personal but are those we have in common. I guess that’s the practical answer to your question, investing unprecedentedly in volunteerism for the first time in a large-scale, not episodic fashion. We’ve created a budget, put together a real cabinet, and interestingly, the program has gotten a lot of attention, particularly from the Biden administration. It’s just one example of active citizenship. I think it’s your responsibility as a citizen—that every single person who is over 18 should go and do a year of service.

Yes, and in that sense, I’m rather curious—what are the models you look to, the case studies for you, when you’re thinking through, you know, ‘getting out of this mess,’ as you put it?

Sarge Shriver. He launched the War on Poverty from scratch, ran the Peace Corps, co-founded the Special Olympics. All the things we take for granted today, across the spectrum, had an early head start with him—all of those things were literally created and conceived by one man, and he did it at a time when, you know, no one else in history had effectively handled poverty. And within just a few years you see the pendulum on poverty actually swing in the right direction. He never served a day in a position of elected office, but he was the czar of the War on Poverty. He did just as much to change the 20th century as two-thirds of our presidents.

You’re saying ultimately that we don’t really know the solution to a situation like what we have now, where we see that citizenship is certainly on the back burner. We spoke previously about how there’s a great lack of discourse in this state and elsewhere, that with this dissolving of citizenship is an absence of a site for public discourse. I’m curious, do you think that if there’s going to be a solution, it’d have to be some kind of overarching, top-down solution like Sarge Shriver’s mechanism?

Yes, absolutely. There has to be something universal, something we all share, and that, at the end of the day, comes down to shared experiences—not shared rhetoric. Creating a force for that kind of shared experience is necessary. We had that, tragically, with the draft—a sort of existential shared crisis. Though now we have the existential crisis of climate change, I guess. But anyway, I think if I had to give a “TikTok” recipe, that is my 15-second recipe to fixing this, that would be my top-line step: creating a force for shared experience. It’s obviously much more nuanced than that. And many people try to do this, to force this kind of collective citizenship-inducing experience. When I was mayor, I tried to do that in the same way as the current Cal Volunteers program, by getting all our public school kids to volunteer, and everyone was against it. I mean, we caused all kinds of problems with the school board. Eventually we compromised and created this memorandum of understanding, so it was part of an agreement for more nurses and things at schools—we drafted a partnership agreement with the public schools, my compromise was basically in writing for the public schools to “increase their commitment to providing volunteer opportunities for kids in schools”—I mean, it was nothing, but it was nice. I got it in the list, you know?

Yeah, you checked that off.

Exactly, and now they can say they sent their kids to the Scouts or to clean up the river…

Picking up trash at the beach, that kind of thing.

[Laughter] Yes, exactly. And as mayor I thought it was such a genius idea, you know. I was young, I was 33 when I was running for mayor—but being mayor, it sort of de-geniused me. It took a little bit of that spark, so I didn’t even waste my time really fighting for similar proposals as Governor, because I knew how impossible it was going to be. I mean, it’s 1,052 school districts, and I have no command-and-control here —I have no legal authority to do it. There’s something I did do, in this vein of shared citizen experiences that we are discussing, was my so-called “baby bonds.” Over $2 billion dollars in total put towards the state, so [our kids] get saving accounts. That’s something I’m proud of. Because what it is, at base, is finding ways to punch at the bureaucracy, to get around the snags and find different strategies. And in terms of citizenship and shared experience, I think that there is a narrative here—it’s not just about building college savings culture through savings in California, there’s something else in that we are created something we have in common, it’s the commons, it’s almost like a civic bond or a sovereign wealth. There are countries around the world where everyone owns a common piece of something. I think it’s those things that are important and often go unnoticed— we have to find those things here.

Right, it’s all of us with a common stake in something.

Yes, it is. There’s just something there—that’s where my mind is going, what I’m thinking about right now.

Right. So going back to what you said a few minutes ago about this process, that compromise with the different San Francisco school district stipulations—obviously that was not the outcome you wanted from the beginning. And you are generally someone who is labeled as an idealist, or audacious in certain respects. How do you balance that internal idealism with what you described, this urge towards pragmatism and perhaps the necessity of it?

You know, I don’t know what I don’t know. I think of it like the Roger Bannister theory, if you know that one—it’s called the beginner’s mind. Everyone at the time knew that that four-minute mile couldn’t be done. But this guy, Roger Bannister, didn’t know— he’d just never heard that—and so rather infamously, he did, he broke the four-minute mile. And once he did, all of a sudden, 18 to 20-plus people around the world started doing it, too. So, to answer your question, it has to do with this notion of the “beginner’s mind.” There’s something beautiful in that. For me, if I haven’t tried something, I’m going to try it. That’s my idealism. If I’ve tried and I’ve failed, well, I’ll try it differently. A different strategy. Once it fails again, okay, then I’m willing to say, all right, you guys work on that, I’ll work on these five other things. There are some things I’ve tried that at a certain point I’m not interested in increasing the number of failures. But I’m willing to up my number of tries, and I’m always willing to fail a little for that discovery.

When you do come across those failures, what is your process for moving on or redirecting?

I think it’s the usual emotions—anger, denial, misunderstanding…

Yeah, the 12 steps of failure.

Yeah, and then you’re just like ah, forget it. I’ve got other stuff to deal with in my life. [Laughter] You just move on! I mean failure, unfortunately, is basically routinized, that’s the problem with goal-setting in politics. I think of that quote, that the biggest risk in life isn’t that you aim too high and miss it, it’s that you aim too low and reach it.

When I express the nature of my goals—I did that with homelessness, gave an actual number as a goal, and explained explicitly that we were never going to be capable of achieving as much as we could if we didn’t have our sights set that high, unless we were that audacious. There was never a question of lowballing a number we could give to the press, in case we missed. It’s about aiming high, being audacious. And in this case, we reduced street population by 33%—to us, a phenomenal success, and yet it became this political dark horse, this disaster. “Newsom fails!” You know those headlines. “Newsom falls short!” So you learn. You get pissed, you get angry, you think, “oh, this is ridiculous!” And the press just laugh at you—they wonder why you’re taking it so seriously. But that sensitivity of course is in what it does, which is that this kind of goal- setting, especially politically, just strips away your idealism. [Homelessness] is a political loser—the problem is intractable, we can’t ‘solve’ it, not fully, and some won’t use their political capital on it. And so trying is no longer in their interest. In that way, that pragmatism really comes at a price, because at least for me, you’ve got to increase the number of tries. You miss 100 percent of the shots you don’t take, right. But I guess the point of all of this being that the more I do this job, the more I have to remind myself of that: don’t become the old guy that just tried it five times and knows better and will just smile at all these young people trying to figure these problems out. You feel that. You know better than me, probably, how this progress goes…

Yes, absolutely—it’s not so much picking one or the other as it is this constant maintenance of idealism, holding on despite everything working against a kind of steadfast commitment to trying.

You know it was Lincoln who spoke to this notion of being ‘de-geniused’ over time. He said that we are all born originals, but that we die copies. I love that, and I agree—there’s a process by which life just de-geniuses you, you do become that copy. And how you avoid that, that’s an exercise in leadership as well.

Who guides you in that? Who do you look to for inspiration in that goal?

All of them. It’s limitless. I look to Lincoln and also to Michelangelo, to every leader, every age in history. I look to anyone whose leadership inspires me—the CEO of Virgin Atlantic, the founder of a company. It’s remarkable people, and remarkable individuals, who inspire me—an amalgamation of everyone, pieces of all of their wisdom.

Because everyone has a little bit of the right answer.

Exactly, and success leaves clues. Especially with books, it’s just an abundance. With someone’s autobiography you can hear their voice, experience, 50 years of someone’s trial and error. I read slowly, so about 15 hours for me for a book, that’s pretty good. What I mean is that it’s easy to find inspiration—pick and choose your favorite 30 leaders, your cast of favorites, and you can learn so much. And by the way, I pick and choose characters all the time. I wrote a little list, my ‘hot 25’, right before you got here—just 25 people who I want to call up, want to ask questions to. And there are some strange people, some who have nothing to do with politics. I’m just inspired by what they’re doing, and I can steal all of their ideas. Or create the climate to grow and incubate ideas like theirs.

Thank you. To round things out as my last question. It’s a great privilege to be having this conversation with you, both as a Ubben Fellow and just a young person living in California. Speaking to someone my age, in this generation—what’s the big takeaway? What should we know about leadership, from an expert like you?

I keep going back to that Lincoln quote, that we are born originals and die copies. There’s something profound in that. The biggest mistake that I think I make, you make, we all make, is that we want to be like someone else. I think you should learn from others, but you shouldn’t be like others. Your expression is unique, no one else has it. So you can learn from, but don’t follow, others. Unfortunately, this is so common, because we as a culture are always comparing ourselves—“Oh you know I’m not as good as so- and-so,” whatever it is. But comparison is the thief of all happiness. I love that quote. So stop comparing yourself. What you have to figure out is, then, what distinguishes you— and that’s your own expression, your own experiences. And so you have, inherent in you, something no one else has, and that’s what you have to focus on and develop.

Everything else is just a commodity—things like knowledge, just commodities. Whatever you know, Google knows more. Knowledge is universal.

And experience isn’t.

Exactly. That’s what you bring to the table. I have a few other pieces of advice too —it’s funny, I just wrote these down as notes to myself, really, before you came in earlier. Here: “Better well done than well said.” Right, there’s no substitute for experience. Moving away from intellectualizing to manifesting. Another good one: “Be where your feet are.” Don’t move too quickly to the next thing. I always have to remind myself of that, especially now. More generally, though, I was thinking just to speak to being young, and growing up. When I was younger, I had a severe learning disability—I actually have a book coming out about my dyslexia—and a big takeaway was learning that you should not be afraid to be embarrassed. I think that’s a major one, breaking free of that. It’s something that I wish I would’ve felt a little earlier, but, you know, it’s easier said than done. There’s a freedom that people have when they’re free of embarrassment. There’s that kind of eccentricity that is so pure, and people are inspired by that. At least, I am. But that also applies to trial and error, you know, learning from mistakes, not being embarrassed. You know—screw conformity. I’m a culprit of that, playing conformist. But that said, I started 21 businesses with no real education, and I did some audacious things in my businesses and became a 30-something year old mayor, and now I’ve worked my tail off and now I’m here. It’s not easy, but you have to be an entrepreneur, you have to reject embarrassment and just take those risks.

Thank you so much, Governor Newsom, for your time, your advice, and all your answers.

Of course, my pleasure.

Read More:
Ubben Posse Fellow Interviews: Kyle Lierman
Ubben Posse Fellow Interviews: Ryan Roslansky
Ubben Posse Fellow Interviews: Josh Sapan
Ubben Posse Fellow Interviews: Dr. Tom Shanley

Meet the 2021 Jeff Ubben Posse Fellows.