Asa James Swan on Helping People Become Better Leaders

December 24, 2019 Updated: January 30, 2020
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Asa James Swan became deeply interested in leadership and government in his teens. As a freshman in high school, he ran for class president. At age 15, he started college and a year later became student body president. His parents later told him that they remembered walking and seeing their teenage son glued to the TV and switching between C-SPAN and several news channels during the 1994 midterm elections, and thinking “What is he doing? Why is our teenage son obsessed with these election results?”

Swan has just spent this past year as the Chief Leadership Officer of the Commonwealth of Kentucky—an increasingly popular position in the private sector, but rarely heard of in the public sector.

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Asa James Swan is the Chief Leadership Officer of the Commonwealth of Kentucky. (Courtesy of Asa James Swan)

For the past several decades, Kentucky consistently ranked as one of the most corrupt state governments, and Swan, a historian by trade, joined the government four years ago hoping he could help change that.

“Healthy cultures push out corruption,” he said during his job interview with the governor’s office. That caught their attention, and Swan joined the Transportation cabinet.

A few months into his position there as chief of staff, Swan decided to give a talk titled “Creating a Culture of Honor.” Attendees were interested in implementing Swan’s ideas, and things grew from there.

“I really wanted to work on their culture and help make it better,” Swan said. “If the culture got healthier, then it would help address some of the systemic problems that my cabinet had had over the years.”

“And even just people who love doing their work aren’t being tempted nearly as easily to break the law or do something unethical. Most of the people there are really good, hard-working professionals … they’re loyal, they’re faithful, and they’ve given their lives to this,” Swan said. A healthy culture could inculcate against the few bad apples who get into government for the wrong reasons.

“Everybody wins when the culture is better—everybody wins. Especially the taxpayers,” he said. Buoyed by case studies of culture change in the private sector, Swan wanted to see if he couldn’t bring better leadership to the bureaucracy.

The talk went well—it turned out many were interested in making their workplaces a better place to be, as well as more efficient and innovative. Swan started doing more talks, first to small groups, then in front of bigger groups. The next thing he knew, he was at a conference presenting to an audience of a thousand.

“These things just kind of fall into your lap,” Swan said.

This eventually turned into Swan’s full-time position. At the beginning of this year, the outgoing governor, Matt Bevin, had appointed him CLO.

Leadership Lessons

Swan says the first thing he tells every group is about how leadership affects culture.

“Everybody takes their cues from the senior leader,” Swan said. “In my mind, that’s the beginning of all leadership training, that the senior leader, whether he or she knows it or not, is giving off cues that define work culture.”

People look to this senior leader and model their behavior, whether good or bad, and the senior leader is often unaware of the extent this is taking place, and what the pitfalls are. For example, a senior leader who is constantly busy and very productive may not think of their work habits as a bad thing, Swan said. But then the team watches those lunch desks and no vacations and think they’re not allowed to take time off or take a break.

“Just cues like that begin to define what I call the ‘ghost rules’ of an office workplace,” Swan said.

Modeling the culture you as a leader want to see is the first of three core tenets to Swan’s philosophy. The second one is that good leaders know how to follow, and take any role or rank in a team and still lead. In fact, many stories of great leadership that Swan hears are ones when someone not in a senior leader position decided to step up and lead.

“They don’t always have to be up front, so there’s a humility aspect to that,” Swan said.

“The third tenet is that you should be the leader that others want to follow,” he said. This requires growing yourself as a leader, and becoming the kind of person who builds trust, shows others they are valued, and helps them succeed.

“A good leader is very intentional about creating a healthy culture—I like to call it culture of honor and empowerment,” Swan said. The empowerment is important, because it creates more effective teams, with members supported by the leader to carry out various initiatives. “The leader goes and gives their authority away … healthy teams feel empowered by their senior leader.”

A good culture isn’t just a nice add-on, Swan said.

“Marcus Buckingham’s research has shown over and over that when people go to work, they want to be a part of something bigger than themselves. And if they don’t feel that way, they begin to shut down and their work product diminishes,” Swan said. It was heartening to see that the questions he started to ask were the ones other government employees wanted to answer.

“How can we make this place better? How can we save taxpayers money? How can we do things cheaper and more efficiently and yet improve in the quality of our work?” Swan said. “But how can we make it so people love coming to work and feel like they’re making a difference?”

As CLO, Swan was invited to various cabinet offices. The secretaries function like CEOs of their own areas of government, and they know Swan is available to help with anything from addressing the culture at large or finding ways to improve small things like strengthening the feedback loop.

“Sometimes I’m invited for a whole day, sometimes I come back for an hour,” Swan said. “What I love is usually after I come the first time, I get another invitation.”

Swan has defined four areas of leadership development: leading yourself, leading others, leading the room, and serving those we lead.

A Passion for Potential

Swan said when he ran for freshman class president in college, he was just a kid, and so he probably did it for selfish reasons.

“But when I won, I thought, ‘Oh gosh, how do I lead?'” Swan said. “That began a desire for me to learn: What do good leaders do and how do they live?”

He began with historical examples, reading about Churchill, Reagan, Jesus, Thatcher, Gandhi, and so on. His interest only grew from there, and by the time he was student body president in college, his interest in leadership and government was completely intertwined.

“That just became one of my desires, to become a good leader who puts people first and help them get better and unlock their potential,” Swan said. “That’s when I began to feel a calling into this realm—and as you know, this is a hard realm. It’s toxic, it’s full of people that are here for the wrong reasons. Thankfully, there are still a lot of people here for the right reasons.”

Today, instead of being glued to C-SPAN, Swan attends the Global Leadership Summit twice a year without fail.

“I recommend it to you—nothing I do all year is more deeply refreshing and inspiring,” he said. It sweeps aside any cynicism he’s accumulated about his work, and fills him with fresh ideas.

His first job out of college was on a political campaign, which led him to Capitol Hill, before he left politics to become a history professor for eight years. Then Swan left teaching to work on Allison Ball’s campaign for Kentucky state treasurer; the two of them later married, and now have a 15-month-old son. “Like most dads, I’m obsessed with him and I think he hung the moon,” he said.

“And as draining as politics and government can be, my friends and my family along with life, they helped me just rejuvenate and recharge and come back in and fight the good fight every day,” Swan said.

Family, faith, and community help ground him, and Swan is intent on work-life balance. He cooks a lot, travels, and has been working on his doctorate on the side. His thesis is about power and power relationships, and how that connects with spaces and places, Swan said—more specifically the ancient fishing village-turned neighborhood in Edinburgh where his grandmother emigrated from, and the abuse of power that marked the place over time. “It’s fascinating, but it’s a very sad story,” Swan said.

Swan says his passion is to help people grow into their potential—and that people trump politics any day. But the government does have bearing on the day-to-day lives of everyday citizens, and that should be for the better, not the worse.

“Low taxes, government getting out of the way, them feeling empowered to just pursue any dreams that they have,” he said. “I’d love to see people just have better lives and good policy, and  government really does impact people’s day-to-day lives.”