Cape Cod Pilot, a Big Success in Business, Charts a Course in the Public Sector

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

There he is, Dan Wolf, commercial pilot, visionary entrepreneur, nature-lover, doting dad, and rookie member of the Massachusetts Senate!

I used to wonder why he's there. What inspired him to run for public office for the first time at age 52? Why did he prove as good at electioneering as he is at running a business? (Seldom does anyone with zero electoral experience win one of the 40 seats in the senate the first time out of the gate.)

Everyone who runs for office says they are doing it to serve the public. For many of them, that is a true statement. But, almost always, that desire is coupled with above-average (often way above) ambition.

I'm talking about the very human drive to be in a position of power and influence, to be among a group of powerful and influential people, to deal with serious matters affecting large numbers of people, to bend the course of public events, and to be regarded by wide swaths of your fellow citizens as a leader. (No parent ever tells her kid to be a follower.)

It is also the ambition, a hunger really, to spend one's limited time on earth dealing effectively with unquestionably consequential matters, and perhaps thus to hold, at the end, the profoundly compensatory conviction that one has spent oneself in a worthy cause and has acquitted oneself well in the battles one had to fight. Where would our species be without ambition?

When harnessed to a sharp mind and a strong character, ambition is a great thing. Abraham Lincoln, for example, was described by those who knew him when he was young as the most ambitious man they'd ever met.

And while history has yet to judge Barack Obama, can anyone doubt that he is one of the most ambitious men America has ever produced? If ever there was one, Obama is a phenom of ambition, a fatherless boy who rose, as if jet-propelled, from mean circumstances in our most distant province, Hawaii, to the most powerful position, the highest stage, in the world.

In 1988, Dan Wolf, a graduate of Wesleyan College, was managing the tiny airport in Chatham on Cape Cod when he and another pilot and an outside investor founded Cape Air. They had one airplane and they used it to ferry passengers between Provincetown and Boston. More than one small airline had come to grief before them in the same market.

Today, Cape Air is one of the largest independent regional airlines in the nation, due mainly to Wolf's leadership. It serves nearly three-quarters of a million passengers annually and employs about a thousand people.

Cape Air is intensively focused on its customers, its employees and the Greater Cape community. Its motto: "Make Our Customers Happy and Have a Good Time Doing it."

In 1995, Cape Air was converted to an employee-owned company, a move that reflected CEO Wolf's "principles of marrying sound business and fair equity."

Creating a business from scratch, uplifting and empowering employees, winning the consistent plaudits of customers in the frazzling world of air travel, and holding leadership posts in numerous community organizations would be more than enough for most people. But Dan Wolf is not most people.

The Massachusetts State House beckoned. The challenge of the "City Upon a Hill" proved irresistible.

The dream of public service must have been kindled early in his life. Wolf's official legislative biography notes that he has "four siblings, a father who is a successful entrepreneur, and a mother who is a professor of American history," that "family conversations around the dinner table were always spirited and often political," and that "Senator Wolf attended Germantown Friends School (Philadelphia, PA) for 13 years; Quaker values and education shaped his worldview."

We won't know for a while what Wolf can, and will, do with the power of a state senator. But it's unlikely his tenure at the State House will be run of the mill. He didn't go up there because he needed a job, salary and pension.

If he stays in the legislature for the requisite time, expect him to rise to a central role in leadership. He's smart, he knows how to get along with people, and he's no grandstander. His ambition is tethered to altruism (hallelujah!)...and he has a very talented staff.

NEXT: A look at Senator Dan Wolf's staff.

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