Interview with MnDOT Commissioner Tom Sorel

Recently I have the pleasure of working with Minnesota Dept. of Transportation Commissioner Tom Sorel and his staff to create the Commissioners’ Reading Corner to promote reading, learning, and servant leadership within MnDOT.

Sorel’s article “Enhancing our leadership skills, one book at a time,” a list of his recommended books on leadership, and my interview with him on the first book in the series titled “Drawing leadership inspiration from Muhammad Ali and other” are available in the Feb. 24, 2010 issue of MnDOT Newsline, a biweekly employee e-newsletter posted on the MnDOT Newsline website.

More information including my complete interview with Sorel on reading is posted on the MnDOT’s internal website which is not accessible to the general public. I have posted it below.

A previous interview I did with Sorel published in Woodbury Bulletin on June 11, 2008 titled “Meet the new MnDOT commish” can be view here.

I created an account on and posted the list of Sorel’s recommended books here.

Interview with Commissioner Tom Sorel


Tang: Commissioner, I know you are an avid reader. You read a lot and often recommend books to others at meetings. What has influenced you to be a reader?

Sorel: I was a typical boy while growing up. I was active in sports and other things. I didn’t read a lot. Reading came to me later in life.

Tang: What was the turning point?

Sorel: The turning point came when I was working on my MBA at Thomas College in Maine. I had to read a lot of books on leadership, management, organizational development, business strategy, etc. Reading expanded my mind to other areas. At one point in my life I even read a fair amount of poetry. The more I read, the more I enjoy reading. I became addicted to it.

Tang: When it comes to reading, who has influenced you the most?

Sorel: When I was at FHWA, I noticed that I respected certain kinds of people who had some common traits. They were leaders in upper management who were avid readers and good storytellers, people like Federal Highway Administrators Thomas Larson and Rick Capka, U.S. Secretaries of Transportation Rodney Slater and Mary Peters. Because of them, I was inspired to read more.

Tang: How has reading and books helped shape your thinking and your life?

Sorel: When I read, I pick up thoughts and ideas that apply to work or personal life. Reading about the journey of others can increase knowledge, enrich lives and even save marriages. Reading makes me a better rounded person, positively affecting my work and family life. I am a better leader, a better communicator, a better husband and a better father because of continuous reading, reflection, and learning.

Tang: Tell us a little bit about your reading habits.

Sorel: I read every day, and more when I travel. I read trade publications to keep myself informed about what’s going on in the industry. I often take my 8 year old son to book stores (he reads everything there is to read about the Vikings!) and pick some books on leadership for myself while we’re there.

Tang: Do you have any favorite author?

Sorel: Not really. I will generally pick up a book for the topic. One of my favorite business books is “Nuts! Southwest Airlines’ Crazy Recipe for Business and Personal Success.” For leisure reading, I like mystery, and my favorite author is James Patterson.

Tang: What do you want to achieve with this Commissioner’s Reading Corner?

Sorel: I want to encourage Commissioner’s staff and all MnDOT employees to read or read more, to help MnDOT become a learning organization. I would like this to reflect what we are trying to do at MnDOT, to build servant leadership and to serve the citizens in Minnesota.

I hope the Commissioner’s Reading Corner can provide a central place, a focal point for people to find books, and provide a more personal and safe environment for people to come together to share their thoughts and ideas. It will also provide an environment for people to “explore” and expand their thinking on various topics.

On the 1st recommended book:

Letters from leaders: personal advice for tomorrow’s leaders from the world’s most influential people by Henry Dormann, 2009.

Tang: Why did you pick Letters from Leaders as your first recommended book in the series?

Sorel: This book is a collection of letters and advice from some of the most successful leaders around the world. Each letter is very short. It’s easy to read and discuss. So I think it is a good start.

Tang: What part of this book inspired you the most? Can you share some quotes from the book that struck you personally, left a big impression and made you reread it, pause and think for a moment.

Sorel: Three individuals and their letters stand out for me.

Muhammad Ali was my hero when I was a boy. He talks about life as a journey and a great adventure. We should have fun and laugh. He says:” I worked hard and then worked some more, trying to be the best that I could possibly be at what I was doing. I learned that tough times are a part of our journey in this life, but that challenges make life interesting. Even though it can be painful and frightening at the time, the greater the obstacle, the more glorious the moment of success… It is also important to have fun. I enjoyed my life. No matter where I was or what I was doing, I took the positive from the experience and lived in the moment, connecting with the people around.”

Dalai Lama talks about love and compassion that we don’t hear much in the business world: “The key to a happier world is the growth of compassion. We do not need to become religious, nor do we need to believe in an ideology. What is necessary is for each of us to develop our good human qualities. We must all learn to work not just for our own self, family, or nation, but for the benefit of all humankind.”

US Congress representative Diana DeGette talks about the benefit of changing lives. She says: “Whatever your interest is – whether science, public health, military affairs, or the environment – you can immerse yourself and have a fulfilling career that also has the benefit of changing lives.”

Tang: How has reading this book opened your mind and broadened your perspective?

Sorel: It made me think what I want my legacy to be. I want to share knowledge. I feel a sense of social responsibility and obligation to share what I have learned and know, to pass on the knowledge to the younger generation, at the same time learning from them. We are all leaders in some way, with opportunities to influence and change lives.

Tang: Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts and knowledge. I am looking forward to reading with you, learning and growing, and making Mn/DOT a learning and growing organization.

Sorel: I am very excited about this new initiative.