When I graduated college from East Carolina University in 1992, my dream was to run for public office. I wanted to be elected on a platform of bringing together leaders from both sides of the aisle and delivering real, bipartisan change to the American people. I know it sounds quaint to say that today, but this being the early 1990s, I felt that dream was in reach. One summer I managed to score an internship with my hometown congressman, Benjamin Gilman, of New York’s twentieth congressional district.
Working on Capitol Hill was fascinating. As part of the Congressional intern program, we got to hear from a different elected leader every morning. From Vice President Dan Quayle to House Speaker Tom Foley to Ohio Senator John Glenn, we listened to some of the most respected leaders in the country. My two favorites were Georgia Senator Sam Nunn and Kansas Senator Bob Dole. I deeply respected Nunn for his national security expertise and his work on nuclear nonproliferation, and I fell in love with Dole’s patriotism and his tireless work to pass the landmark Americans with Disabilities Act. I had the honor of speaking with them, and I said to both: “If you ever run for president, I will drop whatever I am doing and come work for you.” I didn’t care that Nunn was a Democrat or that Dole was a Republican; they were both uniters, and that was all that mattered to me.
Nunn retired from politics in 1996, but Dole ran for president that same year. That summer, one of his staffers gave me a call and offered me a job on the campaign. True to my word, I rented an apartment in Washington, DC. It wasn’t glorious work. I spent mornings shredding paper, sorting mail, and cleaning the office. After lunch I’d change my shirt, put on a tie, and run the switchboard. At night I was Senator Dole’s personal assistant. I’d grab him sandwiches; walk his miniature schnauzer, Leader; drop his suits off at the dry cleaners, I basically ran the errands everyone else was too busy for. Yet it was a transformative experience, even though I was lowest on the totem pole.
One day, a top Dole campaign lieutenant approached me in the hallway. “Hi, I’m Woody Johnson,” he said. “I just wanted to introduce myself and say that I’ve noticed all the hard work you’re doing around here. You must be putting in a hundred hours a week, and I’m so thankful for all you do.”
Woody Johnson, of course, was the heir to the Johnson & Johnson pharmaceutical empire (and current owner of the New York Jets Football team). He took me out to lunch and poured into me. He asked about my background and what my goals were. Woody had a million things to do and a million people demanding his attention, but he made time to have lunch with the intern. He was genuinely kind and authentic in a way that few people of his stature are. When I applied to business school a few years later, it was Woody’s letter of recommendation that got me in. When I wrote my first book, it was Woody who penned a glowing endorsement for the jacket.
Too often, when we get some wealth, some fame, some power, we get arrogant. We ignore the people we think are below us. We just don’t have time. In the years since I met Woody, I’ve tried to pay forward his gift of influence through my nonprofit work. Every year, the Global Youth Leadership Academy travels abroad to teach leadership skills to teenagers. During 2021, however, we had to cancel our trip to Europe due to Covid-19. Instead, we arranged a week-long father–son rafting trip along the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon. As usual with these trips, half the kids paid full tuition, and the other half were given scholarships by generous donors. This year, my friend and mentor Bill Graebel sponsored a young man named Jonathan. His dad wasn’t really in the picture, so Jonathan, a boy scout, invited his scout leader to come along.
We had an exhilarating week. I really got to know Jonathan’s heart, and I was impressed by his rare combination of ambition and empathy. At the end of the rafting trip, he asked me, “Tommy, I have a question for you. Would you do me the honor of speaking at my Eagle Court of Honor next month?” The Eagle Court of Honor is reserved for young people who have attained Scouting’s highest rank: eagle scout. I had my own Eagle Court of Honor some thirty-five years earlier, and I know how important a moment it is.
I admit my instinct was to say no. I had a million things to do, including spending time with my family after a long time on the road. But then I thought about Woody Johnson. Despite running both a multi-billion-dollar company and a presidential campaign, Woody made time to take the intern out to lunch. He made time to invest in me. What was my excuse?
And so, the following month, for the first time in thirty-five years, I squeezed into a Boy Scout uniform and delivered the keynote address at Jonathan’s Eagle Court of Honor ceremony. It was a beautiful day, and I was honored to be there. I know that if I can invest in Jonathan even half as much as Woody invested in me, he’ll go onto big and exciting things.
So, the next time you’re too busy, the next time you’ve got too much going on, remember that when it comes to showing up for the interns, scouts, and all the other dreamers you know, it’s not about having time—it’s about making time.