Journal of Leadership and the Law

My Day with Governor Granholm

By Nathaniel Cook

Governor Jennifer Granholm came to Elon Law in September 2015, as the first of three speakers for the 2015-2016 Distinguished Leadership Lecture Series presented by the Joseph M. Bryan Foundation. A Harvard Law School graduate and former federal prosecutor, Granholm was the first woman elected as both Michigan’s Attorney General and, Michigan’s Governor.  Granholm’s speech highlighted the need for women to excel by leading in politics, as well as in the law and in business. Her speech was very inspiring, and I hope you watch some of the footage from the event embedded with this article.  However, there were many moments I witnessed that most did not. This unique exposure was possible because I served as Governor Granholm’s body man during her stay at Elon Law. 

The body man or woman has great insight into the world of a politician, more so than constituents, reporters, colleagues, and even most staff. The body man or woman is a dedicated staffer who spends all day with their boss, assisting in any way possible. Depending on the day (or the hour), this job may require introducing guests, remembering the contents of their curriculum vitaes, making sure accommodations are in place, helping a politician meet “real people”, or getting a politician away from it all the hustle and bustle for five minutes to sneak in dinner in between talking points.

These times behind the scenes are where a person’s true character shines, and the body man or woman gets to take in all the light. The best politicians leave behind countless Kodak moments that frame their legacy. Former Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm is one of those great politicians. Shortly after her arrival, Governor Granholm was interviewed by one of Greensboro’s local news stations. Before the interview started, Granholm sparked a conversation with the reporter where they discussed their children, Michigan, mutual connections and more. This was where I first saw the Governor in her element. She has a great presence and ability to empathize with the people around her. The conversation did not come across as simply polite, but truly genuine and engaging.

After the interview, the Governor went to a forum with Elon Law’s Leadership Fellows, where she responded to questions from students for nearly an hour. The questions involved her experience as Governor in Michigan during the Great Recession, how to best manage crisis, what leadership traits are valuable for lawyer leaders, and the obstacles she encountered as a woman in politics.

Speaking of integrity, she told a story about a summer when she clerked at a law firm in New York City. One early morning, while she was photocopying cases, a partner came in and asked if he could use the copier to make some personal copies. When she told him she could make the copies for him, he said no, this is not for work. To her surprise, once he was done, he left some change on the counter next to the copier to cover the cost of his copies, and said that the firm would not pay for his personal expenses. He told her, “If you learn one lesson this summer, know that if you cheat in small things, you will cheat in big things. You have to have integrity in things big and small.”

When discussing her political career, she talked about the many “firsts” that came with being a woman in politics. She spoke of the strides women have made, but argued that much more must be done to bring more women into leadership positions, particularly the higher they rise in their careers. Referencing the glass ceiling, she stated  “I think we have an obligation not to brush the shards of glass from our hair, but to make sure we are reaching down and helping to pull others through that hole.” She said she did not have many female mentors to ask what it had been like to serve in politics, and how being a mentor now to other women is a very important and fulfilling responsibility. Governor Granholm made the point that men, too, can, and should, mentor women and encourage their growth as leaders.

Throughout her interaction with the Leadership Fellows, I saw the passion that Governor Granholm has for helping others as a lawyer leader. While discussing the work she did to diversify Michigan’s economy after the auto-bailout and the Great Recession, she became so enthused when talking about the work they did building out supply chains and creating business ecosystems so companies would be less likely to export factories. She also talked about the hard times, such as when her phone buzzed so frequently with e-mail notices of Michigan companies issuing layoffs. At one point Governor Granholm said, “you need to put yourself in a position to see other people’s pain.” It was clear when she said those words that she walked the walk. Years after her time as Governor, and years after an American auto recovery, she was still passionate about doing her part to help everyday citizens compete in our global economy. She later told me a story that while she was Governor, her body man walked her to events through the kitchens and back doors. He built time into her schedule to introduce her to the staff and “real people” that she would not ordinarily meet, just so she could better serve all of her constituents.

Governor Granholm has an innate ability to speak to a crowd of any size. The Leadership Fellows forum was a small group of about fifteen to twenty students, while the next event was a reception of over one hundred. During this reception, she spoke briefly to the crowd at large, and then worked her way through the gathering, speaking individually with as many people as she could. During the reception, I introduced Governor Granholm to students, professors, and local dignitaries. Just as I saw with the reporter and with the Leadership Fellows, her genuine enthusiasm to empathize with others was on display.

With about thirty minutes to go before her speech, as most people started to make their way from the reception to the auditorium, I escorted Governor Granholm to a side room so she could make some final revisions to her speech. She told me she wanted to make some changes based on the interactions she had with people throughout the day. It dawned on me that she spent the entire time at the reception investing in getting to know the Elon Law community, and she wanted her speech to incorporate those connections. Once her speech was revised, we had a few minutes to talk politics and discussed my own career goals. She did not have to ask, but she did; she wanted to know what I was passionate about, and what drove me to be a Leadership Fellow at Elon Law. My day with Governor Granholm will continue to be a highlight from my time as a student at Elon Law, and her passion for helping others will serve as an inspiration for years to come.