By: Jeff Perlman Editor-in-Chief
“Great leaders in any arena are great not just because they hit more runs out of the park, but because they give us something to believe in and belong to. They show us the best of us, reflecting that what we do when no one is watching, is who we are.” -Bernadette Jiwa
Leaders have to be learners.
If you aren’t learning, you aren’t leading.
Because nobody has all the answers and if you think you’re the smartest guy or gal in the room you’re either mistaken —or in the wrong room.
In order to learn, you have to be open-minded—open to learning and growing as a person and as a leader.
We recently swore in a new mayor and three new commissioners in Delray Beach.
All over town, there’s excitement and a sense that perhaps we can turn over a new leaf and begin again.
It’s no secret that I’ve been highly critical of the past mayor. I didn’t want to be. After all, we were friends and I backed him when he first ran. But I was disappointed in his approach to the job. In my opinion, he chose a ‘go it alone’ model of governing. If you want to be an effective leader, going it alone is not an option.
You can’t go it alone. It is not a sustainable model for a city.
But there’s lessons to be drawn from every experience and we’d be foolish not to learn from them.
I’ve been watching municipal politics here and elsewhere for over 30 years—first as a journalist, then as a direct participant and now as a member of the PIPS–previously important people.
Here’s what I’ve seen work and what I have seen fail. This is not a comprehensive or complete list, just highlights and observations.
–Those who learn and grow in office succeed. Take the time to read, study other cities, learn about local history, speak to a cross section of the community and build relationships. For example, if you want to understand urban planning there are blogs like Planetizen and trade pubs like Planning. You can read Jane Jacobs, visit the Strong Towns website, City Lab and Smart Cities Dive to get an overview of thinking on a vast array of topics. You can also chat with local planners–they tend to be pretty cool people. The same goes for all the other topics from public safety and municipal finance to economic development and civic engagement–there is a treasure trove of helpful information if you are open to learning, listening and engaging with people.
-It’s a job to do, not a job to have. You are only there for a short period of time. Make it count. Don’t be afraid to speak your mind. Be transformational not transactional. The former ensures a legacy, the latter is forgettable.
–Work with staff, not on them. Don’t micromanage, but don’t be afraid of accountability either. Mistakes are going to be made—we’re humans. The key is not to repeat mistakes and to learn from those you and others make. Good leaders give people space to shine and own their own mistakes.
–Your job is to lead and provide direction. Staff implements. Get out of staff’s way. You are not the City Manager. You are not the City Attorney either. Or the Planning Director, Finance Director etc. The corollary is also true, don’t tolerate staff being political. If they want to make political statements they should run for office and if you want to hire, fire and manage staff you should get a degree in public administration etc.
–Great cities invest and reinvest in themselves so don’t be afraid to do so. You will bump up against those who don’t want to spend and who believe you can cut your way to success. Spending should be prudent, tied to a vision, strategic and smart. There are those who think government’s role should be limited to picking up the garbage, making sure water comes out of your tap and answering 911 calls—all essential but….. But the special cities create value by investing in projects and activities that lead to quality of life enhancements. The best public investments seed the economy and lead to private investment that often dwarfs the public expenditure. Look to create ROI–and understand that sometimes the returns are intangible. The intangibles are important.
–Some people will love you, others will hate you. Seek to serve them all, but if you have to choose (and sometimes you will have to) seek, earn and keep the respect of the doers in your community over the naysayers. The doers are easy to find. They are volunteering, working for your city, serving and investing in your community. The naysayers are not those who disagree with you on an issue or a hundred issues, they are the ones who can’t move on and try to burn down your house because you don’t see the world through their lens.
–Process is important. But outcomes matter. Process without outcomes (results) create a frustrating mess.
–Engage the community. And engage some more. Repeat.
–Build a reservoir of good will. You will need it when the going gets rough and it always gets rough.
–Get people involved. Search for new and old voices and ask them to get busy. Respect those who serve and volunteer. Reach out to all and get their input. You will be a better servant leader if you do. There is wisdom to be tapped everywhere you look but only if you seek it out.
–You work for us, not the other way around. Be a servant leader not a dictator.
–Your personal preference matters to a degree, but ultimately you’ll fail if you make it about you. Stand for the things that build the community. Make decisions for the long term good of the community not your short term political interests.
–Value and respect people and key organizations. You are there to support their missions and goals. That doesn’t mean you can’t question, challenge and push. Just do so with respect.
You’ll fail if you
-Use the word optics. It indicates you’re political.
-Keep your own counsel. You ain’t that smart. Nobody is.
-But don’t give yourself to a political guru and allow someone to be your gatekeeper or outsourced brain.
-Bully or push staff, citizens or volunteers around. Mean doesn’t age well. You may get short term results through fear and intimidation but ultimately you’ll fail– miserably.
–Forget that the loudest voices at the mic, in your email inbox or on social media don’t necessarily represent the majority.
-Have no vision to guide you. Elected officials get in trouble when there is no community vision or North Star. Instead of focusing on the community’s goals and aspirations they create vacuums quickly filled by handlers, special interests and shiny bright objects. Ala carte governing fails, leads to factions and division and frustrates staff and citizens.
Despite the glossy goodbye speeches claiming victory and declaring that things were “fixed”, I think we’ve been left tired and in a ditch.
If we want to dig out, get moving again, heal divisions, solve problems and seize opportunities we have to do things differently.
Fortunately, we know how. This town wrote the book.