(The essay was first published in the Portsmouth Abbey School Bulletin, Summer, 2014.)
Sean Spicer believes in family, God, trust, hard work, determination, gratitude, service, and seizing opportunities. It is also clear that the Abbey’s hallmark values of reverence, respect, and responsibility infuse the personal and professional life of this Class of ’89 Abbey graduate who has risen to the high ranks of the Republican National Committee.
On April 14 in a Mother Seton Lecture to the Abbey school community, Sean offered his “Rules for Life Beyond Cory’s Lane.” Afterward I had the opportunity to explore his thoughts on leadership and other aspects of his life.
Since February, 2011, Sean has been the Communications Director for the Republican National Committee (RNC), supervising the party’s strategic communications, research, television studio, war room, minority engagement, and media affairs operations. With a staff of thirty, he indicated that the position is clearly his most challenging to date. There was once a “news cycle” which allowed some daily breathing room; however, now the communications environment is much more fast-paced. A person in the political communications business is really on duty “24/7”. Sean stated that nowadays a situation can change dramatically with a few words said in a Tweet. True to his upbeat and positive personality, he followed by saying that he has enjoyed all his jobs to date and implied that they have all given him valuable experience in the complex world of American politics.
His current position is a culmination of many lesser positions, ones which others may have rejected. During his lecture in which he offered students “Seventeen Rules for Life,” he spoke to this subject with his very first rule. Rule #1: “There are no jobs for ‘anything’.” He related a story about an early interview he had in which he eagerly told the interviewer that he was “prepared to do anything.” The interviewer indicated: “I do not have a job for anything.” Looking to their future, he encouraged Abbey students to formulate clear ideas on positions they desire before they enter an interview.
Sean began his discussion of leadership with me by referring to his military career. Since 1999, he has been a member of the Navy Reserves, and now holds the rank of commander. He attended the Naval War College in Newport in 2012, and earned a Master of Science degree in National Security and Strategic Studies. Mission accomplishment is a phrase which the military can drum into you; however, I found that Sean never focused on this. He holds as fundamental the principle: If you take care of your people, they will take care of you. He added that leadership always begins at the top, implying that a leader’s behavior affects the entire culture of an organization. Second, Sean also believes that a leader must treat all people—no matter what rank or station in life—with respect. Third, in a situation that demands leadership but where an absence exists, a good leader steps in and takes charge. Such a leader can perceive the void and also can muster the fortitude to take action.
In his current job, he leads and manages the Communications section of the RNC, composed mainly of young college graduates. He describes his leadership challenge as twofold: to keep them energized and focused, and also to strive to find and recruit the highest quality individuals available.
In his lecture to the students, he covered a number of principles which clearly relate to leadership. Rule #4: Take responsibility when you screw up, and you will be rewarded. Many people just make excuses. Rule #7: Have a plan, but be flexible. Here he related a story about taking a position with a candidate running for Congressional office in Pennsylvania. Even though this meant leaving the capital and even though the individual lost the election, Sean gained valuable experience, something which helped him gain future positions. Rule #12: Remember to say thank you, orally and in writing. Rule #16: Follow your mom’s advice: It’s not what you say, but how you say it. The tone and tenor of your words count.
Sean’s religious-spiritual side was also evident in his lecture. Tucked into his essentially secular set of 17 rules was: “Rule #14: Have a relationship with God.” In his case, both he and his wife value their religions and their personal relationships with God.
Both in his formal comments as well as in our discussion, the values which Sean cherishes as foundational and fundamental became evident. Prominent were family, God, trust, and voluntary service, but there were others. Hard work was shown in his Rule #3: Showing up is half the battle. Showing up early and often is the other half. The value of gratitude was also evident. His Rule #12: Say thank you/write thank you. Responsibility, a hallmark of the Abbey Mission, also ranked high. His Rule #4: Take responsibility when you screw up and you will be rewarded. Determination surfaced in Rule #5: Never give up. The value of friendship shined in Rule #11: Make good friends. Find a mentor. Asked about his mentors, Sean indicated that his father was his key mentor in life, the man who infused him with his “moral compass.” For a career mentor, he mentioned Ed Gillespie, who has served as the party chair and a senior White House counselor, and who is now a candidate for the U.S. Senate.
A native of Barrington, Rhode Island, he developed early an interest in Portsmouth Abbey, and as he investigated it, his interest grew. “There was something about the Abbey that was special, and I wanted to be here.” St. Aelred’s and St. Leonard’s were his homes, and he played soccer, sailed, and wrestled. Not surprisingly, Cliff Hobbins’ Political Science course was one of his favorite classes. He also appreciated Father Damian’s English class, and he admired Father Pashal’s genuine interest and active engagement with students. During his visit to the Abbey, Sean marveled at the physical changes to the campus, especially the more magnificent views of the Bay that have been created.
Sean’s initial interest in politics which germinated at the Abbey was nurtured at Connecticut College where he majored in Government. With degree in hand, he decided to venture to the locus of political power—Washington, D.C. From the start, Sean’s “Seventeen Rules” were surfacing and shaping his life. He realized early the importance of knowing before an interview the types of jobs for which he searched (Rule #1). In his lecture Sean related an experience in which a colleague had recommended a particular internship. After winning the position, Sean realized it was a mistake. The position may have been well suited for his friend, but not for Sean.
In order to gain positions of higher responsibility in the political world, Sean first had to serve in many intern and other low-level positions. In his lecture, he related this in his Rule # 3: Showing up is half the battle. Showing up early and often is the other half. He illustrated this point with a story from his younger days when he filled a position in one of Senator Robert Dole’s campaigns. The position called for a daily, 5:00 am, visit to Union Station, Washington, D.C., to receive the New York papers. He then prepared a summary of important news with clippings. Showing his lighter and more humble side, Sean twice served as an Easter Bunny during the White House Easter Egg Roll.
In February 2011, Sean was accepted into his current position of the Communications Director of the Republican National Committee. At the time the Republican Party, staggering with a $23 million debt, was badly in need of good leadership and management. He led the party organization out of these doldrums, rejuvenating the Committee both inside and outside the capital. In the 2012 election cycle, Sean oversaw a substantial growth in the Committee’s social media strategy, quintupling the party’s Facebook fans and multiplying its Twitter followers by over 700 percent. Sean has also increased the YouTube videos of the Party and their viewership. Sean’s team was recognized for its outstanding efforts during the 2012 election cycle with 18 Pollie Awards by the American Association of Political Consultants.
I directed our discussion to the highly abrasive partisanship in national politics today. Sean noted that Congressmen today spend less time in Washington and therefore less time with each other. This clearly helps to explain the harsh tone, adding his hope it would decline. I noted that he, with his Democratic counterpart, had raised over $16,000 for St. Baldrick’s, a foundation dedicated to children’s cancer research, by shaving their heads on ABC’s “This Week”. Sean is clearly able to separate his professional work from his volunteer work and to reach across the political aisle.
I asked him about maintaining his integrity in the rough and tumble world of Washington politics. Sean emphasized that “you can be a strong partisan and still be a good person.” There are always short cuts that a person may take, but with regard to integrity, Sean has not seen an individual take these short cuts, compromise his or her integrity, and win “the marathon.” In his lecture he also spoke to this with two of his rules. Rule #8: Trust your gut. If it does not feel right, use caution, he told the students. Also Rule #13: Your mail can always be addressed to “occupant.” Here Sean stressed the importance of being the person you truly want to be. Do not be arrogant and pretentious in an enviable position you have attained. With these comments he clearly reflected the Benedictine value of humility.
Sean also encouraged Abbey students to seize life and the opportunities beyond Portsmouth Abbey. Get to know the international students and understand their different perspectives (Rule # 10). Life is short. Live it fully so you can look back with no regrets (Rule #17).
Sean currently resides in Alexandria, Virginia, with his wife Rebecca and their two children.