For $200 a head, a Hawaii Institute for Public Affairs shindig Monday evening at the Plaza Club bought attendees pasta and shrimp, live jazz and an open bar.

It also offered the opportunity to hear three respected and politically akamai players — lobbyist John Radcliffe, insurance executive Colbert Matsumoto and Hawaiian Electric’s Robbie Alm — opine on leadership.

More precisely, to talk about where Hawaii’s leaders of tomorrow are to be found today.

Here’s what they said.

Colbert Matsumoto

It’s amazing to think how young the leaders of yesterday were when they accomplished great things, said Matsumoto.

John F. Kennedy, for example, was only 43 when he was elected president. (Matsumoto was in the fourth grade when JFK was assassinated.) Martin Luther King Jr. was 28 when he organized the Montgomery boycott.

Here at home, Jack Burns was just 33 when, as a Honolulu cop, he helped persuade military authorities not to mass incarcerate local Japanese Americans during World War Two. John Waihee was a young man when he rose to prominence in the 1978 Constitutional Convention.

Matusmoto’s point is that it takes dynamic, challenging times — like movements for women and civil rights, for example, or the Hawaiian Renaissance — to produce dynamic leaders who will move society forward.

“Maybe we’ve bred complacency, but we can’t afford to be complacent,” he said. “We are on the verge of facing some huge challenges in our society, and young people really need to take stock of, and to take ownership of this. They need to come up with the vision.”

John Radcliffe

Radcliffe was in his early 30s when he was hired on the mainland to lead the Hawaii State Teachers Association.

Radcliffe thinks Hawaii does have its share of promising young leaders today, and he singled out Brian Schatz, who at age 38 was elected lieutenant governor.

For Radcliffe, leadership is about not quitting. He told the story of Abraham Lincoln, who suffered one setback after another through his entire life and became president when the country was about to split into two.

Drawing big laughs from the HIPA crowd, Radcliffe said Lincoln lost most of the early battles of the Civil War “until he changed his staff.” That was an obvious reference to his friend and Hawaii’s governor, the 73-year-old Neil Abercrombie.

“It’s not whether you get knocked down,” he said, this time quoting a Green Bay Packers coach, “it’s whether you get back up.”

Robbie Alm

Alm, who teaches college classes on leadership, defined what leadership is not.

It is not, he said, jealous: “It is about success and celebrating others’ success.”

It is also about not being afraid, and about having the ability to inspire those around you. He pointed to the example of Abercrombie.

“Whatever you feel about the current governor, it is a four-quarter game and he barely finished one term,” he said, repeating the exact same thing the governor said just hours earlier. “This is someone who came in with zero administrative experience, and we knew that when we elected him, and we elected him for other reasons. … We elected him for his passion and what he wants to do for the community.”

Alm continued: “So give him a break.”

Clearly, the leadership talk was strongly informed by Hawaii Democrats. HIPA boss Bill Kaneko, after all, ran Abercrombie’s campaign and is said to have played a key role in shaking up his staff.

In that regard, without ever mentioning the staff shake up directly, Alm offered this interesting observation: “What would you do if you were in Neil Abercrombie’s position, Bill Kaneko’s position, (resigned deputy chief of staff) Andrew Aoki’s position — in any one of those positions? Just think about that … each of us may be in that position one day … think about what that would mean to you.”

Alm’s point seemed to be, as he himself said, “We need to spend more time spending time on leadership.”

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