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April 27, 2021

Leading with a commitment to education and belief in the power of public policy with Jim Dyke | Greater Washington DC DMV Changemaker

Leading with a commitment to education and belief in the power of public policy with Jim Dyke | Greater Washington DC DMV Changemaker
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In this episode of Partnering Leadership, Mahan Tavakoli speaks with Jim Dyke, a partner in the law firm of McGuireWoods LLP.  Jim Dyke served as Virginia’s Secretary of Education under former Virginia Gov. L. Douglas Wilder, and as Domestic Policy Advisor to former Vice President Walter Mondale. Mr. Dyke shares lessons learned based on his vast leadership experience.

Some highlights:

● Jim Dyke shares how his upbringing impacted his commitment to leadership and a desire to leave a legacy of impact.

● Jim Dyke talks about his experience in leading the fight for the rights of women to be admitted to the Virginia Military Institute

● How leadership can create the kind of culture necessary for successful change.  

● Jim Dyke talks about the significant role his wife Ellen played in helping him to become the best possible husband, father, and leader.

● Leadership lessons Jim Dyke shares with others on how to become more impactful leaders.

Also mentioned in this episode:

 Walter Mondale, Former Vice President of the United States

Clifford Alexander, First African-American Secretary of the Army 

Griffin Bell, 72nd Attorney General of the United States

Ben Civiletti, first Italian American to serve as Attorney General.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Associate Justice of the Supreme Court 

Ellen Dyke, Author ofAdam and Steve


Connect with Jim Dyke:

 Jim Dyke


Connect with Mahan Tavakoli:



More information and resources available at the Partnering Leadership Podcast website: 



Mahan Tavakoli:

Welcome to your Partnering Leadership. I'm really excited this week to be welcoming Jim Dyke. Jim, who was active in politics, even back in high school with a March on Washington, eventually went on to Howard University, Howard law school. He ended up working on Walter Mondale's vice-presidential campaign.


Eventually, he became the first African-American secretary of education for the Commonwealth of Virginia. He became the first African-American to be chair of Fairfax chamber of commerce and so many other organizations where his leadership has been impactful. Now, while he served as secretary of education, he did a lot of great things, including being the person who was responsible for opening up VMI to women.


His leadership is in part credit to his parents and Jim himself and in part credit to his wife, Ellen, where he talks about her as a source of energy, insights, support, and guidance to his leadership all along his journey. 


Love hearing from all of you. Keep your comments coming, mahan@mahantavakoli.mom. There's a microphone icon on partneringleadership.com website. Love hearing your voice messages there. Don't forget to follow and or subscribe to the podcast and share these episodes with other leaders so we can inspire more leaders to help improve themselves, have a greater impact on their organizations and most importantly, have a greater impact on our entire community.


As Jim says, we are all standing on shoulders of giants. In our cases, giants, including Jim and it is up to us to become the shoulders that future leaders and future generations can stand on. 


Now, here is my conversation with Jim Dyke. 


Jim Dyke, welcome to Partnering Leadership Podcast. I am so excited to have you with me in this conversation.


James Dyke:

Well, thank you very much for having me. I'm looking forward to it and I've always enjoyed interacting with you. You've always been very enthusiastic and very supportive, and a lot of that rubs off on me. So I'm looking forward to it.


Mahan Tavakoli: 

Jim, a lot of your enthusiasm rubs off on me. And one of the things that I always mentioned when I see you is I call you Mr. Chairman because I don't think there are too many organizations I've been involved within this region that you haven't been the chairman of. 


James Dyke: 

That's very kind of, you have been a firm believer that if I'm going to be a part of something, I want to have some control and some leadership role in it. So I've tried my best to work in that direction.


Mahan Tavakoli:

That's wonderful, Jim. And before we get to some of your leadership in this region, would love to know whereabouts you grew up and how your upbringing impacted the kind of leader you've become. 


James Dyke: 

Well, basically a DC regional person. I was born in the district of Columbia. Raised in Prince George's County, Maryland, and live in Virginia now so I've been in all three jurisdictions my entire life because two of my greatest loves have been the law and politics. And I figured that you can't be in a better place than this region to have an impact on those and what has happened in these three jurisdictions has clearly impacted how I've developed as a person. What my priorities have been, how I've tried to make a difference, and if I had grown up in Wyoming, I'm sure it might've been a little different, but the fact that I'm here, I think is the right place for me. So it's worked out very well. 


Mahan Tavakoli:

You've contributed a lot, Jim, and I know your mother and your father influenced you quite a bit in your upbringing.


James Dyke: 

Yes, that's clear. My mother was a public school teacher. In fact, my parents were both one of 10 kids which was very interesting because they had plenty of brothers and sisters, but they only had me so I think that was a benefit for me and right from the beginning, she and my father who grew up in an age where there were limited opportunities for African-Americans.


And so, my father, even, I was a very bright person who was not afforded a lot of opportunities and he only went through high school but he was able to utilize his God-given talents and he also understood how important it was for me to get an education and my mother did as well. 


And in fact, the story that I have often told, and I'm very proud of it is that when I was growing up, my mother says, well, Jim, you've got two choices in life. One is, you can get a good education and can try to make a difference in this world and make it a better place to live or I will kill you. And I used to always say, I may not be a road scholar, but I think I'm going to go with door number one. She made it clear that- how important it was and explained to me, as I grew older, I saw the importance of that.


It's somewhat like one of the things that I said when I was secretary of education, how important education was and one way of determining how important it is, is that if you look back at the slavery period, the worst thing that people could do during slavery period, the worst crime you could commit was teaching a slave to read.


Because people recognize that once you get an education, there's no way you're going to hold that person down. They're going to try to reach their full potential and that's how powerful education is. And my mother knew that if I got it, I would be able to significantly make a difference in this world. 


And so, everything that I have done has been built on that foundation that she put forth to me and I bless every day the fact that she did that, I wouldn't be sitting here today doing your things that I've been able to accomplish had it not been for she along with my father and stilling and imbuing me with a love for education and for making a difference.


Mahan Tavakoli:

What a powerful lesson your father and your mother left with you, Jim. And think about the thousands, the hundreds of thousands of people, whose lives have been impacted because of your strong belief in education, in part, because of your father and your mother pushing you and telling you that education is the right way to advance.


James Dyke:

Yes and that really fired me up as secretary, because as I spoke all across the Commonwealth. I would say to folks, you cannot throw away this opportunity. A lot of people have sacrificed a lot, their jobs, there's security, their future, and in many cases their lives to give us the opportunity to get an education.


And so I'll be damned if I'm going to see you stand on a corner and waste your time and not go to school and not get educated, you have got to be able to do something with yourself to develop to your full potential, but also to recognize, for example, in my case, I didn't just sort of drop out of sky and started doing these things. I'm standing here on someone else's shoulders, other people sacrificed and work hard for me to get this opportunity. So I'm not going to throw that away, but I'm also going to realize that I need to have other people standing on my shoulders so when I go into something, I say to myself, what do I have to do to make sure those who come after me have not only the opportunities I had but even more.


And to put it in the leadership capacity you referenced earlier. When I became the chair of the Fairfax County chamber of commerce, I was the first African-American chair in the 75-year history of the Fairfax County chamber. And my number one priority was to make sure I wasn't the last African-American chair, of that organization.


So I made sure I put people in the pipeline so that they could get the experience and exposure needed to be in line to be chairman after I left. 


And so that's been a theory and a concept and approach a leadership trait that I've tried to carry out throughout my life. 


Mahan Tavakoli:

What a beautiful way to put it Jim.


We're all standing on the shoulders of others that have sacrificed so much. They've given us the opportunities. That's why it's important for us to make sure that our shoulders are strong enough for future generations and future leaders to stand on. 


Now, I know you had an advocate part to you way back when even in high school in 1963 and that's when you participated in the March on Washington. 


James Dyke: 

Yes, that's correct. In fact, when people ask me, what are the various things that have influenced your life? That is one. Prior to that, to be honest with you, my number one love had been mathematics. I did very well when I was in school and graduated near the top male in my class.


And I had planned to actually go into mathematics, but as I saw what was going on with the civil rights movement and dealing with equality and as a high school junior, I went to the March on Washington and I had a chance to hear Dr. King and all the other theaters speak about equality and when my parents were telling me that you really have a chance to make a difference in this world. It was based on that, that I decided, well, maybe I need to be looking to see what I can do to be agent for social change. 


And so I shifted my focus to political science and to the law feeling that I could make a difference if I was able to get. The kind of background that was necessary to actually have an impact on how people lived and to make this a better world so that particular March, that tickle exposure was very, very important to me and it was a major, major turning point in my life. 


Mahan Tavakoli:

I had a great one at that. You eventually then went on to Howard and Howard law school, while I at Howard, you also had another transformative experience and that was your service through ROTC?


James Dyke:

Yes, that is correct. When I went to Howard, my major, as I said, was political science and my minor was going to be economics. But at that point, there was a requirement that you attend at least two years of ROTC at Howard and so I knew I had to do that, but as I got into it, I recognize that having the opportunity to learn about discipline, leadership, teamwork, all those things were very important. And to this day still am impacted by my ROTC training. 


Now, the added point here was that I knew that I wanted to pursue a law degree and I also knew that at that point, there was a lot going on in the world and people were being drafted and pulled into the military. But I knew that if I went into then advanced ROTC, I would have the opportunity to be able to go straight from undergrad to law school. I was still have the commitment to go into the military, but I would at least be able to get my legal foundation in place, get my legal education, and still have those tools necessary to make a social change.


So I stayed in ROTC for all four years at Howard. Once again, going back to that earlier comment of if I'm going to do something, I want to lead it or be the best. I graduated as the top of my class in ROTC so that's one of the things people didn't always know that I was a lean, mean, fighting machine in addition to everything else that I was doing.


But it taught me a lot, in fact to this day. I judge people on a military criteria to the extent of if you trust somebody- is this somebody I want in my foxhole with me? Are you qualified to be in the lead time? So if I say that you're ready Mahan to be in that lead tank, then that means I'm ready to put my life in your hands and vice versa. So to this day, I still look to that training, the chain of command, the discipline, focused on a mission, knowing what you want to do, have a game plan. It has a significant impact on me and to this day, I'm grateful and thankful.


But also just on another personal note, it also meant I got paid an additional $50 a month when I was in advanced ROTC so that helped, that along with the one other unknown fact was when I was in college, friend of mine and I had formed something called sounds unlimited, and we would provide music for the various parties going on at Howard when fraternities and sororities we're having parties, they would hire us and we'd come in and play the music. I'd be the DJ and earn a little extra money. So it all worked out well. 


Mahan Tavakoli:

So Jim, you were a lean mean fighting machine and a party animal at the same time. 


James Dyke:

That came in handy depending, but we got a party you would go into. 


Mahan Tavakoli:

So Jim, you came out of Howard law, started practicing law and that's when 


James Dyke:

Yes, that is correct. I actually, prior to that, when I came out of law school and completed my military experience, I went into private practice, but I also got involved in the political science. I've managed the first campaign for the elected mayor of the District of Columbia, which was quite an experience.


There was a fellow by the name of Clifford Alexander, who had been chairman of the equal employment opportunity commission who wanted to run for mayor and just as a short background.


Part of that time, DC did not have an elected mayor. Their leadership was appointed by the President it was run pretty much like a plantation basically and they decided finally to let DC electeds, first mayor, at the time, there was a fellow by the name of Walter Washington who had served as the appointed mayor and he was a very decent guy, but he was not a guy that was shaking things up and pushing for more responsibility for the district. 


So cliff decided he wanted to run. He was an aggressive person, had been very active as chair of EELC and he asked me if I would run his campaign because he and I had met earlier on. And so we ran his campaign and even though nobody knew who he was, and I said, look, this is going to be a cakewalk for Walter Washington we said, well, not exactly. I think he's done a lot of good work, give him a gold watch, but don't give him the city. 


And so we decided we were going to go knocking on every door in DC and take the battle to him. Cliff did not win, but he lost by very, very, very slim margin and people were, we're very surprised at that, but it sent a good signal.


Now all, that is to say, is that that kind of got me into the political arena. I subsequently got involved in national democratic politics. I served as general counsel for the democratic party's platform committee in 1976 when Jimmy Carter was nominated for president. As a result of that, I wound up being asked by then-Senator Mondale to travel with him in 1976 on his campaign for vice president as his policy and politics advisor.


So I flew around the country with Walter Mondale for the convention through the election flying five or six days a week, five or six cities a day, six days a week. And as a result of that, when Jimmy Carter and Mondale were elected, I went into the white house as Mondale's domestic policy advisor, which gave me an opportunity to be involved in policymaking at the national level.


And then subsequently came out of the white house after Carter was not reelected and had been very successful in private practice. And all of this led up to my getting appointed to the state board of education in Virginia and I served in that capacity and I got to meet the governor Wilder while I was on that board and provided him with some advice and some guidance and what have you. 


So when he was elected, he asked me if I would come and serve as the secretary of education, and the reason he wanted that he knew that I had already established a outstanding career. I had succeeded as a lawyer, I had a lot of experience in the political arena. So I didn't need to be a member of his cabinet in order to have some impact and some influence so he felt that I was capable of coming in and being able to sit with him and give him my candid advice. 


One of the leadership things that I've seen in other people is that a lot of times, political leaders will only want people around them who are, yes people who’ll tell them what they want to hear. To me, the most effective leaders are those who are willing to have people around them who have diverse views and who are willing to tell them what they need to hear, not necessarily what they want to hear. You don't want to hear some of these things, but you need to hear them if you're going to make a well thought out deliberate, successful decision. And so what governor Wilder said was, I want you to come in here and give me your candid advice. 


So I would serve a secretary during the day, but near the end of the day, I would tool over to the governor's office and we'd sit around and we talk about a lot of issues, some of which involved education, some of which involve non-education issues, who he was going to reappoint with policy position, he was going to take and I would say, Hey, I think that's a great idea you ought to do, or I would say, what the hell are you thinking? You can't do that? Don't go in that direction. And the beauty of working with him was he was so confident in himself and his ability to hear varying abused. Sometimes he would follow what I said, sometimes he wouldn't, he would follow what he thought was right but the point was he was willing to listen other points of view and then make the best decision he could make. And for me, that attracted me to say, Hey, this is something, if I think I can have an impact that kind of influence, then I'm willing to sacrifice and take this job and go back into public service.


And it was the best job I've ever had because I felt I was able to have a significant impact and he had confidence in me and one of the things that's very significant is, a lot of times Cabinet members will serve and people will recognize them as, okay, well they say this, but we really don't have to pay much attention to them because the governor might feel a different way.


He made it clear. I would give you one example. This was during the time when there was a lot of discussion about investing in South Africa and people were talking about, don't invest in companies that invest in South Africa and the governor and I thought that we needed to send a message to our university foundations, that they ought not be investing in companies that invest in South Africa.


So I started quietly calling presidents and saying, would you please consider doing this? And I think some of them were a little skeptical saying, gee, this guy's on this tangent, what the hell is he talking about? The governor then went to Norfolk state university and gave a commencement address and says, "oh, by the way, I'm issuing an executive order directing you not to invest in companies that invest in South Africa." and at that point, people said, Whoa, wait a minute this guy, when he speaks, he's speaking for the governor.


And so that had a significant impact on my ability to serve as secretary because when I basically talked about policy and talked about new direction, people recognize that I was speaking for the governor and that gave me significant leverage.


And the only caveat was, I knew enough about governor Wilder if I was going to go out and announce some big policy change, like year-round school. I would call him in advance and say, this is what I'm going to say, just giving you the opportunity, if when this comes out, do you want to distance yourself or you want to support it?


And that's all he wanted, but it made a huge difference as far as the effectiveness of my leadership as a cabinet member, when people know you've got the back- that the person who is the ultimate decision-makers got your back 


Mahan Tavakoli:

Jim, what a tremendous testament to the governor's leadership and your leadership.


You mentioned that this is the way it works best in politics. This is exactly the way it should work. And it works with the most effective leaders of organizations where they have the confidence to surround themselves with truth-tellers, with diverse points of view, people that feel comfortable to push back.


And yes, eventually make sure to have the back of their team when they go out. Whether in your case, it was to the universities and to the citizens, or whether it is with the CEOs when their team members are involved in their organizations and in representing their organizations externally. 


So there are so many pearls of wisdom with respect to effective leadership, just beyond even politics in how governor Wilder dealt with you and how you dealt with governor Wilder.


Now to that relationship, Jim, you were also able to make significant improvements with respect to education in Virginia, re-structuring the Virginia state university board, doing something extremely significant, which is opening VMI to women. 


How were you able to restructure and then make a significant change to an institution that holds such big sway in Virginia.


James Dyke: 

Well, those are two key accomplishments that I think send a very strong message. Virginia state university is one of our two public, historically black colleges and universities, and over the years, it had not gotten the level of support from the state it needed in order to carry out its mission. So one of our goals was to make sure that they had the resources that they needed. But just like every other university in the Commonwealth, you have a board of visitors and they are supposed to sort of set the policy and direction.


And unfortunately, Virginia state over those years before we came in, had not had the most- shall we say, effective board of visitors and they were not providing the kind of leadership that we felt that the university needed in order to achieve the level of excellence that we thought it was capable of.


And as it turns out, their president decided to step down and so there was an opportunity for some new leadership. The governor and I felt that this was a great opportunity for us to exercise some leadership here by saying, you need to have a president who's willing to take them to the next level, but it also means you need to have a board of visitors that has the wherewithal to support that president and to provide the support that they need in order to take them to that level.


And we looked at the people that were on that board and we felt that some of them just were not up to the task and so the governor of Virginia does have the authority in rare cases to replace members of boards because normally they are appointed for four-year terms. So we felt that this was an opportunity for us to make a difference.


So what we did was, and this is another shall we say, tidbit of leadership is not only what you say that is important but how you say it. And we wanted to make a clear statement that this was very significant. We needed change, change needed to happen immediately. 


So Virginia state university is located in Ettrick Virginia, which is about a 20-minute drive from Richmond, which is where the governor is located and where I was located. And instead of taking a 20-minute drive, what we did was we got the state police helicopter that the governor uses to go around the state and we flew down to Ettrick and we landed a helicopter right in the middle of the campus and as you know, when the helicopters land, a lot of dust, a lot of wind creates a commotion.


We landed right in the middle of the campus and we walked into the administration building because we called a special meeting of the board of visitors. And we walked in just as that sort of set the tone that gee,  these guys must be serious, they come in here in a helicopter and create dollars disturbance.


So we go in and the governor says, things are not going the way we think they ought to and what I would like to do is every one of you, members of this board submit your resignation to the secretary and he's going to review it and decide which ones we accept and which ones we retain. But the thought being that they needed to get some people on there who had backgrounds and how to raise money, how to manage organizations, some business acumen, some academic background.


And so we went through and basically replaced half of the board to get people on there who could get the job done. So when that new president came in, they would have people behind them to help them get the job done and it worked. That turned that school around. 


And to this day, in fact, I had a meeting earlier this week with some folks from Petersburg, it's a legend. Whenever you've mentioned my name down in that area, they keep talking well, the helicopter, we remember that, the governor came in. That had the impact, as I said, of creating the tone for us to then carry out the leadership changes we wanted to have made. And so that was very significant and that school is doing wonderfully well now as a result of those changes. 


VMI was somewhat of a similar situation. VMI as the only military school in the Commonwealth of Virginia, there are few military institutions in the country, West point air, force Academy, or the Citadel, and their traditional admissions policy was just for men only. And I don't know how familiar you are with that, but they've got a pretty strenuous curriculum and approach at VMI, which is fine.


Our concern was though, why in the world would you say that half of the tax-paying people in Virginia who pay for this institution, can't go because they were born female. So as it turns out, just as we had come into office, the justice department had filed a lawsuit to talk about whether or not women should be admitted to VMI. 


And the governor and I were of the clear mind that yes, they need to be admitted. The interesting part was in Virginia, the attorney general has the responsibility of representing public universities in litigation and going forward. And the attorney general at the time was Mary Sue Terry, which was interesting because she was the first woman to hold statewide office in the Commonwealth.


But Mary Sue was from the conservative side of the party and was of the mind that the admissions policy at VMI was fine and that she was prepared to defend VMI. So the governor and I said, well, wait, wait a minute. No, no, you're not going to represent the Commonwealth and take that position. So what we're going to do is you go ahead, you represent the Commonwealth, the governor, and I will get our own separate council.


Now, the beauty of all, this was the VMI Foundation, which was the entity that was actually litigating this on behalf of VMI, went out and hired Griffin bell who had been the attorney general of the United States under President Carter, or at least the first part of Carter's administration. And so they hired the former attorney general of the United States to represent VMI.


So the governor and I sat and we said, well, we're going to do this, we're going to get our own lawyer, but not only we are going to get our own lawyer, but there was a little connection that I played upon. 


My wife, Ellen, who we just celebrated our 42nd wedding anniversary at the time was a partner at the Venable law firm. She's the best lawyer I've ever met and she's the best lawyer in his family, I will test on that, but she was a member of the Venable law firm, so I said, well, gee, whiz, let me do something here. I wanted a main name partner at that firm was a fellow by the name of Ben Siviletti, who had been the attorney general of the United States for the second part of the Carter administration.


So I went to Ben and said, Ben, would you represent the governor and I on this to take the position that we think women ought to be admitted? And he agreed to do it on a pro bono basis, and as a result of that case, going up to the US Supreme court, the Supreme court with Ruth Bader Ginsburg writing the decision says VMI has got to admit women.


That was a major, major, major accomplishment and to this day I burst with pride. And I don't know if you saw the documentary on the notorious RBG, but there's a portion in that documentary where they talk about the VMI case, and whenever they talk about it, the governor and I just sort of beat him up because we took a stand, we thought it was the right thing to do. The fact that I had three daughters at the time was another added incentive for me to say, You're not going to tell me that tax-paying women in the Commonwealth of Virginia are going to be denied the opportunity to get an education at a public university. 


So those were two major, major accomplishments, and I feel great about both of them.


Mahan Tavakoli:

And you should, Jim, what a magnificent story of having the right vision to do the right thing and doing what it takes to make that right thing a reality. So it's a combination of both of those. Your daughters have the opportunity and my daughters have the opportunity because of what you've done. 


Going back to the initial statement you were making. We are standing on the shoulders of giants that fought battles before us to give us these opportunities, therefore, it's up to us to fight the battles, to give opportunities to people that come after us. And you have done that magnificently Jim. 


Now, Jim, I know you also mentioned your wife of 42 years, Ellen. I know she has been significant both in her support and guidance for you, obviously, she is the love of your life and has had a very successful career herself. 


James Dyke: 

Yes, that is absolutely correct and it's been an interesting marriage because I will lead up to describing Ellen, by the way, I went to describe her to my parents.


I had been married at very early age. I was like a first-year law student and that day and age, you didn't have to live together kind of situation. You either got married or you just didn't have the relations. And we were good friends, but not the kind of chemistry that was needed for a long-term relationship.


So we were married and divorced, but then I met this young lady who actually had been a student at Howard law school. I taught part-time at Howard while I was at Covington in Berlin and had been a student at Howard and we had anonymous grading system, so I didn't know how well she performed, but she obviously did well because she wound up being a summer associate at Covington.



And she had come in to talk to me about some things at the law school and she was talking to me, it was the day that I had gotten a call from then-Senator Mondale saying, would you come and work for me as my domestic policy and issues advisor as I go on this four-month campaign to be president of United States.


And as I was on the phone, talking to him and Ellen was sitting in my office, I was starting to pack up things because I was going to go and take this position. And so I got off the phone and gave her some advice about the law school and started to walk out and I said, Oh, by the way, would you mind if I called you sometime?


She said," it's your dime, if you want to do it, go ahead and do it." So I wound up as I was flying around the country, five or six cities a day, six days a week, I would call her from out on the road. And I remember I'd be standing in the phone booth somewhere saying, I just called to say, hello, how you're doing.


The long and the short of it was we wound up getting married, doing my first year, working in the white house. And she has been the love of my life. But when I went to my parents to tell them, this is what I was going to do, and this is what makes us even more exciting story was, I started off saying, well, mom had met this woman, she has been divorced, she has a son who at the time was six years old. She's from New York, she's white, she's Jewish. I'm trying to lay this stuff out to see if I get any pushback at all on any of these and only question I (she) said was, "Is this someone that you love and you want to spend your life with?" And I said, yes and that's all they wanted to know. 


And it just created a relationship because at that point in time, You realize interracial inter-religious marriages were not exactly everyday occurrence. So we started off having a marriage that obviously, as I said, it was a very diverse family and our family became even more diverse because within the first two and a half years, we were married, we had three daughters, they were all born, one white behind the other.


So we immediately had 4 kids within, you know- the first four years of our marriage and they obviously saw what it was like to be as part of an interracial inter-religious marriage and we approached it in a way to show them that diversity is what this world is all about. And we would always try to expose them to both my religion, as well as my wife's religion, and to recognize the fact that we're all the same. We have different backgrounds, but we're all human beings. We ought to be treated the same way. 


Now, you look at our family, our daughters are now obviously all grown up. Our son is married to a Jewish woman and they have two kids. Our oldest daughter was also involved in interracial marriage, as was our youngest daughter in an interracial marriage. And our middle daughter is involved, in fact, the daughter that I'm with as we speak is in a interracial, interreligious marriage. She married a young man who is Muslim from Syria and so we have every sort of, part of the world represented in this family. I used to like to say to him, when we walk into a restaurant, we offend everybody in there for some reason, but it has provided such a dynamic understanding of what a diverse community can be like and that we've learned so much from each other. I mean, before I married, Ellen and I had very little knowledge of the Jewish faith and the kind of discrimination they have to deal with. Not having any brothers or sisters I was never really focused on girls and how they were discriminated against with my son-in-law being Muslim. I was not aware of the discrimination that he had to face and so we tried to teach our kids and our grandkids, our non-grandkids now, how beautiful it is to have such a mosaic type of family and to learn from one another and it just creates a lot of interesting situations because people are just fascinated by the dynamics of our family.


A couple of really cool examples. When I served on the state board of education at the beginning of the year, and this gets back to how people have stereotypes too, by the way, is that we would set our calendar for the beginning of the year, so they would say, okay, these are the dates that the board is going to be meeting throughout the year. I would say, wait a minute, can you make sure that none of these fall on Christian or Jewish or Muslim holidays so we can make sure that we're not causing a problem there and people you'd see people looking, so why in the world is he asking these kind of question? Because they had a stereotype.


But also, there was another example, and one of the leadership traits I learned was, one of the ways to diffuse difficult situations is to use a sense of humor to basically defuse the situation and to change the dynamic. Well, here I was secretary of education, the first African-American appointed a secretary of education in the Commonwealth of Virginia history.


Now, Virginia was a state that gave birth to massive resistance. When the Supreme court said you had to integrate schools, Virginia says, no, I don't think we're going to do that, we're going to close public schools and have private schools for white students and black students, you do what you can. And so the Supreme court threw that out.


Here I was, the first African-American secretary of education, the state today, birth of massive resistance, serving under the first African-American elected governor anywhere in this country. So I'm going all across the Commonwealth. I'm out in Southwest Virginia and I had just given a major speech and was having a press conference afterward and I was getting questions about this and that and whatever. And then this one reporter stands up and says, well, Mr. Secretary, you're the first African-American secretary of, not only in Virginia, but in the country, but I understand you're married to a white woman and I looked at him and says, what Ellen didn't tell me, what are you talking about?


The room just burst out in laughter screaming and hollering because I knew exactly what he was trying to do. He was trying to get me to say something that would create some controversy and to basically start up something, some point he wanted to make. But I knew that if I had diffuse this by humor, it would show how stupid and crazy that question was and the people in the room recognized it. And all of a sudden he was standing there just read and just didn't know what to say and it just took it off the table and it was carried in the press and just that light. I mean, what the hell is wrong with those guys asking this question? But it goes back to leadership and knowing how to respond and tight situations and crisis situations, how to get things done, how to get people to listen to you. So, all, that is to say, is we got a great family, a very diverse family, it's had an impact on me. It's creating a lot of situations. And quite honestly, it has taught me to be as vigorous as I can and it goes back to the VMI case. I mean, I know what it's like for women to be discriminated again, to give examples of how Muslims are discriminated against.


And so I speak out on that very strongly and let people know that you just got to stand up and do what you think is right and you know, some people upset there's going to be upset, but at least you got to do something. 


Mahan Tavakoli:

So Jim, I know that Ellen has been tremendously impactful on helping you as a leader and helping you grow your own leadership capabilities.


How has she been able to do that for you? 


James Dyke:

She's been a tremendous sounding board for me throughout our 42-year marriage. As I mentioned, she's a well-respected lawyer and she has always been one who has been a full partner for me, in addition to being the love of my life, she's also my best friend.   And she's also a, shall we say, given me some direction as to how I should be going and how I should consider issues.


'll give you one example. I sort of think of it as her creating a Frankenstein in the sense of when I was on the state board of education, a big issue that had been facing Virginia was, family, life, education. It was not a part of the curriculum. I had just joined the board and had said, gee, we will all be addressing this issue of family life education, because it prepares people to get along with one another, covers a range of issues.


The big problem in Virginia is that part of it is explaining what is referred to as sex education and people in Virginia just didn't want to hear about that. And so it had constantly been brought up to be added to the curriculum and it had been voted down and nobody had made any progress with it.


And I thought that it was time just to take a stand. And once again, to show in leadership, sometimes timing is also very important because the time that I was sitting on the, on the board of education, we were basically going through the throws of the outbreak of the AIDS epidemic. And clearly one of the components of that was sexual activity spreading the disease.


And I think it created an atmosphere that put this issue in a different perspective. And so what I said was, we needed to be looking at making sure that children were provided with appropriate information on how to conduct themselves. We obviously would start from a position of abstinence, but the reality is not everybody's going to do that. So they need to have some quality information available to them. But I also knew that was going to be an uphill battle. And I said to Ellen, I really don't know if I should do this and she says, "look, if you believe in something, you believe in it strongly enough, you need to take a stand and fight for it." and if you win, you've accomplished a goal. If you haven't, at least you've gotten it in front of everybody and you've taken a stand and you push the ball forward. 


So I say okay, well, let's give it a shot. So I went to the board of ed and fought for it and I'm going to go into all the gory details, but we prevailed and it became part of the Virginia curriculum.


And had it not been for Ellen, giving me that pep talk to say, Hey, go ahead and do it. It would not have happened and as a result of that, that sort of set the tone for how I operated for the rest of my time when the board of education and as secretary. Was if I thought the thing was right, if I felt strongly enough, about it, I'm going to give it a shot. Some we will win, some we won't, but at least we will have raised the issue and we will feel as if we've really made a difference. 


She's also helped me as far as I've done a lot of writing, as far as op-ed pieces and letters to the editor, to advocate for a certain position, equity and education year-round schools, whatever. And I've always shared my drafts. I always think of myself as first draft Jim. I do my draft and get my ideas out and then I go to Ellen, who is an accomplished writer, she's published a book, Adam and Steve, which talks about tolerance and same-sex marriage way ahead of the Supreme court's decision. But she's been able to help me Polish things up and make it more efficient and more effective in communication.


And that has been just a tremendous partner to me in that regard. Separating apart from the personal relationships where, when I've had, for example, a major health issue, about 10 years ago, she stepped right in and said, okay, doctors, we're going to address this and deal with it and took charge of it and got things done. Because when you're the patient, sometimes you're not as aggressive as those who care most about you and she stepped right up and has done that. She also quite honestly has helped me become a better person as far as how I treat individuals, how I do nicer things. I always refer to her as creating the kinder, gentler Jim Dyke.


And I feel like I'm a better person because of her. I'm just so very fortunate to have her in my life. Not only professionally, but personally, and any discussions that I have about leadership have to work their way back to her being the sounding board that I use as I go forward. So I don't read a lot of books or recommend a lot of books on leadership.


I talk about experience, make sure you've got a good sound partner that you can talk to that will give you the straight scoop and some candid advice. And I think he will succeed in being a good leader. 


Mahan Tavakoli:

Your love and admiration for Ellen comes across Jim. In addition to the fact that you've been fortunate to have her as an advisor that can push you when you need to be pushed, to counsel you when you need counsel. So a true partner on the personal side of life, on the professional side of life, and obviously an advocate for you as you have worked to have a greater impact as a leader on our entire community. 


James Dyke:

Couldn't have said it better. She has done all of that for me. I'm probably not the easiest person in the world to live with. The fact that she's done it for 42 years and has made me a better person is a true, shall we say, validation of the strength of our relationship and I'm just very blessed to have her in my life.


Mahan Tavakoli:

Now, Jim having been such an impactful leader over the years, I wonder when people ask you for leadership advice in wanting to become more effective leaders and wanting to be as impactful as you have been, what do you tell them to do to become more effective leaders themselves?

James Dyke:

Well, I tell them to look at people that they think are effective leaders and try to pick up some of the traits that they've noticed in them. For example, the ability to be honest, to be truthful, to be willing to hear opposing points of view. It takes a lot of confidence in yourself to be able to listen to somebody, give you candid advice, as opposed to what you would like to hear.


And so I think you can learn a lot from watching other effective leaders. I mentioned the picking up from Fritz Mondale, one, how to be a quick study, but more importantly, how to use humor to diffuse a situation. I've learned from my military training that you've got to have some discipline. You've got to have a mission. You've got to think through what that mission is. How are you going to get there. And then how are you going to have some accountability to see if you've accomplished your goals. And I've learned from all the people that I've worked with, the Governor Wilder, Walter Mondale, Governor Rob, Senator Rob, Cliff Alexander I mentioned earlier, and it's a situation where there's no one book that I could talk about. I know there are a lot of books and a lot of other resources out there, but for me, the best thing has been to watch how others act. For example, in my parents, they taught me that you needed to judge people by who they are and to treat them the way you want to be treated. And I've always tried to do that. I've always tried to follow through on that. 


They also said you need to know what it's like to stand in somebody else's shoes. And so that whole idea of diversity and understanding how others are treated, you have to figure out what I do if I were being treated like that.


And a lot of times these things all come together and I'll give you one other example that just dawned on me as I talked about this. One of the other things that I remember when I was secretary was, the college of William and Mary. Was looking to have a new president and the press asked me about, well, gee, what do you think about this presidential search down there? And I said, well, I think they're going to get a lot of qualified people who apply for this thing but you know, quite honestly, we've had a whole lot of Williams down there. It's about time we had a Mary because I wanted to send a signal once again, using humor, but also making a very strong point about what I thought was right to push it along. And it was a leadership point. 


And finally, About three years ago, finally picked their first woman president and I went up to her and told her that little story and she loved it and in fact, I was just on the phone with her last week and she was saying, "you know, everybody around this campus has now heard me tell that story about just I'm the first Mary."


But the point is from a leadership perspective, using humor as a way of making the point. Clear and concise. And that's something I didn't read in a book. I just learned it from watching people who were effective leaders. So you've got to try to learn from the people around you and do what's best for you and fits your personality and to always try to make a difference and to say what you think.


After I had served as secretary near the end of my term, there were a number of people who had approached me about running for governor of Virginia. One of the things that was said to me, That had a significant impact on me was folks from all across Commonwealth, including the most conservative parts of the state would say to me, look, Mr. Secretary, I have to admit, I don't agree with everything that you said, but what I admire about you is that you're willing to take your stand and take a position. And you're honest about what you fight for. That people have confidence in at least you're going to try to do what you think is the right thing and I can count on what you say. That's something that I've learned over the years. 


Mahan Tavakoli:

What great leadership advice, Jim, including the fact that it's important to learn from others, which is a key purpose behind this podcast for getting a chance to learn from you Jim, which is why I truly appreciate you taking the time to share some of your story of leadership, your experience, and tremendous impact that you've had on this entire community and beyond with the partnering leadership podcast community.


Thank you so much for sharing your story, Jim Dyke.


James Dyke: 

Thank you so much for giving me this opportunity and thank you for your friendship. I have always enjoyed seeing you and being involved with you, especially the board of trade activities, and you've got some great leadership qualities yourself so continue to spread those qualities and share them with others.


And thank you very much and God bless you.

Jim Dyke

Partner in the law firm of McGuireWoods LLP

Mr. Dyke is a partner in the law firm of McGuireWoods LLP. His broad practice covers corporate, legislative, education, governmental relations, and municipal law. He previously served as Virginia’s Secretary of Education under former Virginia Gov. L. Douglas Wilder, and as Domestic Policy Advisor to former Vice President Walter Mondale.

He is an active leader in the Northern Virginia business community, having served as chairman of the Fairfax County Chamber of Commerce; chairman of the Northern Virginia Business Roundtable; President of the Northern Virginia Community College Educational Foundation; and chairman of the Emerging Business Forum, an organization focused on enhancing minority and women entrepreneurs’ businesses.

He was elected Chairman of the Greater Washington Board of Trade for 2010. The Board of Trade is the largest regional business organization in the Washington, D.C., area, advocating for the business community in Virginia, the District of Columbia and Maryland. During his term, he was Co-Chair of the Joint WMATA Governance Review Task Force.

He also serves on the Board of Directors for Washington Gas Holding where he serves on the Governance Committee.

He was included in Washingtonian magazine’s list of “150 Most Powerful People” in the Washington region. He was a finalist for the Washington Business Journal’s “Top Washington Lawyer in State and Local Lobbying.” He was named by Washington Business Journal as the “Best Networker” in the region and as a Minority Business Leader Honoree. He also won the J. Michael Brown award from DuPont for his accomplishments in diversity, recruiting and mentoring in the legal profession. In addition, he has received numerous awards and certificates related to education, government and community service.

He has served or is serving on various commissions and committees, including the State Council of Higher Education in Virginia (SCHEV), the Commission to Restructure Virginia’s Tax Structure, the Board of Directors of the Maryland Chamber of Commerce, the Governor’s Commission on Economic Development and Job Creation (VA), the Governor’s Independent Bipartisan Advisory Commission on Redistricting (VA), and as chairman of the Board of Trustees of the University of the District of Columbia. He is a frequent speaker on educational, political, and legal issues.