An Interview With Scott Raecker: Character Counts In Today's Political Climate

Character Counts: An Interview With Scott Raecker

MORE ABOUT Scott Raecker

Scott Raecker serves as Director of The Robert D. and Billie Ray Center at Drake University (formerly known as Character Counts In Iowa) – a position he has held since the work of the center was founded by former Governor Robert D. Ray as a lasting legacy to the Iowa Sesquicentennial in 1997.

The Robert D. and Billie Ray Center was created by Drake University to serve as a local, regional, national and global resource for applied research and programming in the areas of leadership, ethics and civility. The Ray Center is a national partner of the Josephson Institute of Ethics, where Scott has previously served as both Chairman of the Board and CEO, as well as the Institute for Excellence & Ethics. From the preschool environment to the corporate boardroom, The Ray Center is coordinating efforts to create a positive environment of civility, principled decision-making and ethical leadership in our daily lives.

Scott’s commitment to positively impact the lives of others was also reflected in his 14 years of public service as a member of the Iowa House of Representatives from 1999 through 2012. In the legislature, Scott served in numerous leadership roles including chair of the House Appropriations Committee, chair of the Ethics Committee, and chair of the Midwest Council of Government’s Legislative Leadership Institute.

Scott is involved in numerous civic volunteer efforts.  Scott serves as a board member of the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation, Drake University School of Education National Advisory Board, Board Member Emeritus of the Smithsonian Institution Center for Folk Life and Cultural Studies Advisory Board, Drake Bulldog Club Board, Shining City Foundation, and board member of the Rotary Club of Des Moines AM. Scott is a member of Gloria Dei Lutheran Church and Urbandale Chambers of Commerce.

Scott is a graduate of Grinnell College where he received his B.A. in Political Science and Religious Studies.  Scott is also certified as a character development specialist and corporate ethics trainer through the Josephson Institute of Ethics and has recently been featured as a keynote speaker on ethics and civility to state legislatures across the United States.

Scott and his wife, Martha, live in Urbandale and have two adult children, Emily and Max.


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Jeff Bullock: I’m here today with Scott Raecker. And Scott is the director, a character, a very special character at a center at Drake University. And he’s here to talk to us about what he does as we share together the topic of leadership.

So Scott, we want to welcome you to our little blog at the University of Dubuque. And I’d like you, if you would just to tell us a little bit about what you do at Drake. Then, I want to ask you some questions about your life and/or generally speaking about the topic of leadership. So thank you for joining me today.

Scott Raecker: Well, thank you. I’m honored to be invited. It goes back many years that we visited right when the center was starting in Dubuque. And it’s great to reconnect. I really do enjoy the blog and I’m honored to be here.

So as you’ve mentioned, I’m the director of the Robert D. and Billie Ray Center at Drake University. And our center is focused with the mission to improve servility and develop ethical leaders throughout the world. Our work’s actually gone on for 20 years since 1997 when Gov. Ray had a vision coming out of the Iowa’s sesquicentennial as a lasting legacy to be able to engage and promote for Iowans our best qualities to enhance servility through character development. That work started in 1997 with Character Counts framework, the Six Pillars of Character with one fifth grade classroom, grew to a state-wide entity.

As our work evolved over the years, we really now work from early childhood to the corporate and community environment. Most recently, I was telling some of the other day; we can get engaged with the literary of character-based skills for early childhood, pre-K, for parents and educators in the same way that we’re releasing standard for presidential debate as it relates to servility. So it’s really that scope and spectrum around core values and how you bring those into ethical leadership.

Jeff Bullock: Well, I’d say it was a, we’re in a type of election where it would have been very good for a number of candidates to have experienced the character curriculum.

Scott Raecker: One of the things that I, I’m a positivist, I’m an optimist. And so somebody asked me about the other day how troubled I am. Well, I am troubled about the current environment but I actually look at it as a positive in this sense. It has moved the issues of servility, ethical leadership and character from things that were nice to things that are necessary.

We’ve long believed they’ve been foundational in leadership and we’ve taken that for granted, I think in many regards with the leadership in state and national level. But the reality is these are not just nice things that we’re talking about. This isn’t just soft. This is really critical for us. And so the focus on ethical leadership, what does exceptional leadership look like is so important.

Jeff Bullock: So where did that passion come from for you? I mean, you didn’t come out of the room thinking about the character in leadership. So there’s a story there. So how did that happen with you?

Scott Raecker: Well, like many people, I’ve been blessed some phenomenal opportunities and a very blessed life. So I was born into a phenomenal family, quintessential, mid-Western, patriarch and matriarch extended family. I knew three of my great grandparents very well. All four of my grandparents had aunts and uncles that were like second mothers and fathers, cousins that were like brothers and sisters. So I grew up in a really amazing family of core values of love, of giving back to others. So that rooted me and I started very early.

I was blessed with the opportunity to go to Grinnell College. Grinnell has a really interesting design still that’s come out of the social gospel movement in the 20’s that I don’t think anyone can come through for now. Regardless of your political side or what people positions Grinnell has, but you come out of Grinnell with the commitment to give back to others, that you believe and understand that you have been given this great opportunity at an education that very few people in the totality of the world have, and that you have the responsibility to give back.

From there into my career pursuits, again, very blessed. And maybe part of leadership is that there were people that saw things in me that I might not have seen in myself, from my very least, earliest days when I left Iowa to be in banking in Colorado and then I was in non-profit work, and that’s a whole another story about the drive of wanting something that was mission driven. And then I think really it kind of capstone in that for me to this point is the opportunity to work so closely with former Gov. Ray. And so, you know, when you think of ethical leadership, when you think of servility, when you think of character, competencies and action, he is the person that anyone would want to emulate.

Jeff Bullock: Why is that? What is there about him? We’ve got a generation of millennials that participate in this blog who watch this blog, who kind of log into it. What is it? Gov. Ray would have been governor before many of them were born, so but yet, his legacy that you, we’ve talked to several people who were strongly influenced by him, and so that piece of it that transcends time and generation. So what is it about Gov. Ray and his wife, and what is it about him that makes people so passionate?

Scott Raecker: I know you said we want to keep this kind of short but, that’s really the story of his life. One thing that many people don’t know about Gov. Ray is because he doesn’t wear down his sleeve, and he’s not… he just does not want to wear down his sleeve. He has a very, very strong faith rootedness that comes from his mom and dad, and his family.

There was a period of time when he actually considered going to seminary, and he never led with that but he always led through that. Meaning that he was a different time when he was a governor as well. But Gov. Ray is a servant leader at heart and he is also an ethical leader. So just one example and you may have heard this before but I really encourage any of the millennials watching this to do some research on Gov. Ray and Mrs. Ray because they’re phenomenal of what they have accomplished.

So now when I and we’re all very proud of the refugee relocation that took place with the Tai Dam, with the boat people, with Iowa’s shares, we’re all very proud of that right now. At the time that that took place, it was a very unpopular politically. He had to expend a lot of political capital. The Des Moines Register actually in an editorial said that he was a clown for wanting to do this. But Gov. Ray, if you listen to him tell about this time and Ambassador Quinn would be a great person to interview if you haven’t already about this, talks about that it was not a political decision but a moral decision. It was a decision about who’s going to help these people if not us and that we have plenty and abound in love here. We need to open our doors not as a state program but as individual communities and homes, where families brought these folks into their homes, very unpopular at that time. So part of his leadership was always looking at serving others and doing what was morally or ethically the right thing as opposed to the politically expedient right thing. And he’s got a servant’s heart. He is a true example of a servant leader.

Jeff Bullock: You know one of the, one of my favorite passages of scripture comes from Jeremiah as referenced by James Davison Hunter in his book, To Change The World. According to Jeremiah, and there’s a passage there where Jeremiah says, “Seek the welfare of the people wherever you may be”, in whatever, basically, whatever capacity you may serve in.

Jeremiah is talking to an exiled people so he’s talking to people who are in the minority, who have lost power, who have all that they’ve known has kind of vanished and they’re in a foreign land literally, and yet he is saying, “Seek the welfare of the city wherever you may be”. And it sounds like when you talk about Gov. Ray’s core values. That’s, now that undergirds kind of who he was and who you are. And what I’m really interested in is, is this a value, what you’re talking about… Is this a value that is somehow unique or germane to Iowa and to Iowans. Why didn’t California or Rhode Island, you know, establish a program like this in honor of the state’s sesquicentennial.

Scott Raecker: I think it’s unique but I’m biased around that. I do believe there are core values that in fact the Smithsonian in 1996, when they were doing part of the sesquicentennial, did a study on the culture of Iowa through the Center of Folklore and Cultural Studies. And they captured it as a community of culture. And one of the things that they looked at is there is a real humility here.

Sometimes in Iowa, we don’t really appreciate what we may have. It’s rooted in a rural, agrarian spirit still to this day even with the transplants into Iowa and our transplants out. There’s still the spirit of neighbor helping neighbor.

Right now, during this beautiful Fall, if a combine goes down or a farmer or his family is ill, somebody else is going to come and help them out. So there is this giving back, this servant leadership. There is a, I think, a faith foundation still in this state. Maybe not in the same way as it was when our parents were growing up but there’s still a firm faith foundation.

But I think his uniqueness as a leader, as someone that was identified, and I would use this word, and I’m very cautious with this, he is a statesman. There’s a lot of great political leaders. Gov. Ray was a great public servant. And he was focused on bringing people together. He had a couple of instances in his life as governor where he stood up for people where he didn’t expect to stand up for them. And I think it showed all Iowans at that time that this is a man that would fight for you if you needed it.

And so I think that giving back, it’s that giving. It’s I think one of the things that he demonstrates but maybe other generations and maybe even our own is not as open to using that I am trying to be more intentional myself about is just the concept of love.

It’s what you’re talking about right? Doing the welfare of others, and we see that throughout the gospel as well. And so, if you want to look at servant leadership, that’s Gov. Ray.

And I think it’s focused on other people. It’s humility about themselves. He also had a great capacity as a governor, if you study his legacy in surrounding himself with some brilliant people. He was never afraid to not be the smartest person in the room. And that’s how he advanced the state in so many ways.

Jeff Bullock: So, well, you’ll be very modest about this but you were one of those people. I mean, you served in our state, in elected office for many years. And it’s a huge sacrifice. So when you think back on your life into those years, what are three things you really take away from your time and public life and public service that you would want to share with the next generation or encourage the next generation to think about?

Scott Raecker: Well, from the leadership stand point, I think it starts foundationally core values, understanding what your values are because it’s really a decision making framework for you. And so understanding your core values and how you want to implement those. So even with the Six Pillar of Character, trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, fairness, caring and citizenship, those are six values that we can all look at and say, “I’d like to see more of that rather than less of that” in our world, in our capital, in our school, in our home. And the question is not about what others are doing with that, it’s what can I do today, Scott Raecker, to act in a capacity worthy of trust, can I treat people with respect today, regardless of how they may treat me, the responsibility that I have to be accountable for the choices and the consequences of those choices? Can I be fair and equitable in my decisions? Can I demonstrate a caring heart and be a good citizen?

Those are just for me some pretty simple core values. And those didn’t come with this experience. Those came from my mom and dad and my grandparents. It wasn’t until when I was probably in my 30’s that I could articulate what those were so that discernment of core values is I think is critically important for anyone.

And second of that was for me some newer research around about the significance of both performance character and moral character competencies. If you think of it, moral characters are our best self, our relationship side. Performance character is our best work. And it’s not a balance. It’s a yin and a yang. We need both of those to be successful in impacting the lives of others.

So it’s wonderful if I can treat someone with respect and be kind but if I don’t have work ethic and grit and not know how to overcome obstacles and not know how to collaborate or communicate, I’m not going to be a significant in leading.

And on the other side, we all know people that are real hard drivers, they can overcome any obstacles but they just don’t have those personal relationships. So I think, that’s the second thing is really understanding there’s this combination in our lives of how we treat people and how we work that comes to leadership.

And the third thing that I wanted to say and I mentioned once before and I think it’s critical and I think we only need to demonstrate a little more love. I think love is probably one of the unsung competencies of leadership. And you look at great leaders whether it be corporate leaders, family leaders, whatever, there are people that demonstrate to those that they’re surrounded and leading.

Jeff Bullock: So is that something… how does that happen in the political arena that is our status’s different but the last number of years, it’s been pretty contemptuous. So how, you know, there will be some that will argue that we’re past that time, that we’ve entered a period of American history or state history where, I don’t know, it’s just, it’s a used to be world, and now, it’s all about winning and losing and clearly, you would disagree with that.

But how, you know what I have noticed, I’m immersed in the world of millennials. And if I have learned anything just from them, it’s one is that they are very, very optimistic but also they are very realistic. And there is something very refreshing about that. They have not lost their passion to serve, and they also, they have a very, very sensitive BS meter. I mean, I… they know when I’m faking it. And so, what advice would you give to those millennials who are thinking about public service.

You used the word love. How do you, for example, campaign on a platform of love in an environment that is just seems to reward disrespect, and meanness and the antithesis of that. What do you think about that?

Scott Raecker: It’s not easy but it can be done. And I would agree, I don’t think you go out and you’re going to win a campaign by putting love on your brochure that that’s what I want to do. But I think it’s the demonstration of love. It’s trying to draw in the core so we’re talking now on the public arena, the public policy. Part of it is the sacrifice that you talked about.

So to be an effective, I’m going to talk about the legislature because that’s where I ran and served for 14 years. A legislature in the Iowa House is going to serve 30,000 constituents. That’s still a small enough base that you can get to every door and knock on doors and ask people what’s important to them and we took that process.

I believe Iowans and I believe our country is hungry for candidates and I would encourage the millennials to seriously consider being a candidate for school boards, city councils, board of supervisors, the legislature as they are maturing. We need young leadership but as you look into that service, it’s public service. I’m there because I want to give back. And then, it’s the love in action. So what do I want to do? In leadership, you need to identify core values. But you also need to identify core common goals which is why I things like door knocking, you can get an appreciation for that.

So then, you identify what those are and even Gov. Ray but I found successful as well, identifying things that people can agree on before identifying the things that we disagree on. I’ll give you a working example. When I was closing out my time in the legislature and still yet to this day, a very significant issue on our state and the country is our response to mental health needs of our citizens, and especially those that don’t have the means to take care of themselves to do that. That’s a global common issue across party lines. Mental illness does not know parties and boundaries.

So if you can get people to agree as we did in Iowa at that time, we don’t need a hundred and one different delivery systems. It shouldn’t matter whether you live in Dubuque county or Polk county, what services you get based on your county location. So we need to reform this system.

We can start with that more global goal and start to approach that. That’s love in action. Now what happens though is that people get hung up on the how before the why. You know, you’ve done a lot of work, I’m sure one what’s your why right? Or why is we don’t want any Iowan to wait for mental health services. And at one point in the legislation is we’d underfunded that and the Iowans, there are over a thousand of Iowans on the wait list, for over 380 days. And that grew from 20 Iowans in 24 days in a four year period. So we had to address those.

My point is from the leadership stand point, if you want to advocate in the public arena, as a public servant, you identify those core issues of what you want to do to advance the cause.

So I don’t think Gov. Ray led it all with verbal leading in about we’re going to love these folks that refugees and we’re going to relocate them to Iowa. He led on the moral issue that people were in need and we need to embrace them and try to help them get their lives back together.

To me, that’s a demonstration of love. So when I talk about demonstrating love, it’s the actions that you take as opposed to the words that you hear.

Jeff Bullock: Scott, we could talk for a long time. And that’s Scott Raecker from Drake University. He’s doing a wonderful job there. I encourage our listeners and those who participate in the blog to go to their website and maybe why don’t we close with that. Why don’t we help us to understand, for our audience to understand how we can contact you and your center and to learn more about what you do and we’ll end with that.

Scott Raecker: Well, that’s very kind of you. So it’s the Robert D. and Billie Ray Center at Drake University. If you’d like to call our office, it’s 515-271-1910, or you can look for us on the web. If you want to Google, the Ray Center at Drake, you’ll find us. It’s But the millennials will know how to get there look up the Robert D. and Billie Ray Center. And we appreciate the time to be able to visit with you about these.

Jeff Bullock: Scott, thank you.

Scott Raecker: Thank you. I appreciate it very much.

Photo ofScott Raecker
Scott Raecker
Job Title
The Robert D. and Billie Ray Center
1213 25th Street,
Des Moines, Iowa, 50311


  1. Dr. Bullock: I am enjoying your leadership series and have a couple of observations I would like to share with you. I am an old (1957) UD graduate who grew up in Dubuque. I served in an Army Special Forces unit, was wounded in Laos, and then spent 38 years in US Govt Intelligence. Late in my career I was the Deputy Inspector General for the Defense Intelligence Agency and before retiring was the Agency’s Liaison Officer to the Joint Intelligence Task Force in Key West Fl (a multi-agency counter narcotics organization. While my background and leadership knowledge/experience is, for the most part, narrowly focused, I have some strong, not necessarily correct, opinions on Leadership. First and foremost is what mission(s) does the leader see for her/his self and is it clearly defined? Your challenge in leading UD is certainly difference than mine was in the office of the inspector general. What type of control do you have over subordinates and is there a very clear (I hate these words) “chain of command” clearly understood by these subordinates and the overall, in your case, student body? Lastly, your own personality type determines your leadership approach and must be true to your beliefs. Words like honesty, integrity, empathy, common good, christian values, as examples are only words and will vary greatly from person to person vis-a-vis their leadership tendencies. Looking at our newly elected President I believe the overarching concern reasonably learned people have re his leadership is simply….what does he see as his mission? At this point, I certainly do not know. I hope my ramblings make some sense. Best wishes Ed Sponable (class of 57)

  2. Ed,
    Thank you so much for your thoughtful comments!! I agree with you. Mission is imperative. In fact, there has long been a sign on my office wall (formerly on the conference room wall): “It’s about the Mission…period.”
    Best to you!

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