Editor’s Note: The following is an edited excerpt from the book “Adventures in Local Politics” written by YourDelrayBoca co-founder Jeff Perlman about his experiences in Delray Beach, first as a reporter and later as a city commissioner and mayor. We hope you enjoy. The book is available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble.com and at www.dogearpublishing.net. To schedule a talk or a book signing, please contact us through the blog’s comments. A portion of all proceeds are donated to local charities.
“I would say leadership starts with complaining and dissatisfaction. But that’s half of it. The other half of leadership is complain and then make it better.” -Mark Pincus, CEO Zynga.
There can be no success in a city without good, strong leadership. It really is as simple and as complicated as that.
Good leadership can create value, leverage opportunity, inspire action and achieve results far beyond your wildest imagination. Consequently, bad leadership or no leadership is death to a city, business or organization.
Over the years, I have become a student of leadership. I have read books, taken seminars, read case studies and observed good and bad leaders.
Sometimes people mistake leadership for management; they are very different.
Most small and midsize cities are council-manager forms of government, with “weak” mayors and city councils setting priorities for professional city managers and their staffs to execute.
While this system has flaws, it can work, provided that elected officials exert strong leadership and insist on accountability.
Still, there is a clear distinction between leadership and management.
Leadership makes the hard decisions, sets priorities, identifies opportunities, has the courage to confront challenges and the will to follow through when the going gets rough—and the going always gets rough.
In observing leaders, I have come to the conclusion that there are two types of elected officials. There are those who feel being elected is a job to “have” and there are those who feel it is a job to do.
There is a fundamental difference; the former are content to be introduced at every chicken dinner in town, they are essentially in the role to cut ribbons and do whatever it takes to stay there. They are what I refer to as “transactional” officials, in office to cut deals, reward friends and survive. They tend to shun the difficult issues, defer all the tough calls and spend their terms playing dodge ball.
The leaders who make a difference are “transformational” –they seek office to pursue a vision, are willing to take risks and have a healthy –albeit not self-serving–desire to leave a legacy.
Truth be told, even transformational leaders have to make their fair share of transactions—that’s politics–but you’d be amazed at how many elected officials think the endgame is to be re-elected and nothing else.
I have always told candidates that the hard work begins once you’re elected and the job is a lot more than simply doing whatever you have to do to remain in office.
Still, transformational leaders are rarities and therefore should be appreciated and strongly supported. If you happen to be fortunate to get one on your town council or city commission, efforts should be made to surround that person with the resources he or she needs to do what needs to be done to move your community forward.
In most cases, great leadership can overcome weak or ineffectual management—although the experience is sure to inhibit the amount of progress and create frustration for the elected leader. Consequently, the ideal is to marry great leadership with great management, but unfortunately, too few communities hold their government officials accountable. The worst case scenario is a combination of bad leadership and incompetent management; that is simply impossible to overcome.
Part of the problem with finding and nurturing good leadership is that too few people know what it looks like.
Nobody is opposed to great leadership but few communities take the time to actually discuss what it takes to bring it about. Often we fail to monitor leaders and hold them accountable for performance and for promises. Too often, we “suffer” poor leadership and decide to just “wait them out”.
One of the best books on leadership I’ve seen discusses this problem in-depth. In “Why We Are So Bad at Picking Good Leaders” the authors outline seven character traits that great leaders possess.
The rub, so to speak, is that if leaders are missing any of the seven traits, they are doomed to either come up short or fail.
The traits are: integrity, vision, passion, emotional intelligence, empathy, courage and judgment.
That’s as good a list of traits as I’ve seen.
The foundation of all leadership is integrity. We’ve all seen brilliant people loaded with talent and gifts crash and burn because they lack integrity. Similarly, it is hard to lead successfully if you don’t have a burning passion for your city. That flame may burn bright or it may simmer, but it better burn.
When it comes to leading a city, courage also plays a big role.
The beauty of local government is that it is small enough to put your arms around but large enough to be interesting.
In most cities, a simple majority gets it done. In larger governments, ideas have to survive committees, legislative review and executive scrutiny and therefore rarely come through the other end intact.
In local government, if you have an idea and a simple majority on the council agrees, things can change pretty rapidly. In local government, there is room to experiment. For me, that part of city government felt very much like a few of the start-ups I have been involved in.
But the personal nature of local government also means you have to have a fair amount of courage to pursue meaningful progress.
Unlike, state legislatures which vote out of the sight of most of their constituents, in local government you vote down the street from where you live. Consequently, there is no place to hide. That’s a good thing.
Constituents—your neighbors—see you at the grocery store, pumping gas or when you’re out walking your dog. I liked that aspect of local government. As an elected official, it keeps you both honest and grounded.
There’s nothing quite as humbling as running into an irate constituent while you’re wearing ratty gym shorts and walking a Chihuahua named Randy.
Emotional intelligence and empathy go hand in hand. To be an effective leader you need to be able to empathize with the people who are impacted by your decisions. You also have to have the emotional intelligence to be able to read your audience and those who work alongside you. Different people respond to different styles—as a leader it is up to you to discern the most effective way of reaching and connecting with people.
By far, the biggest emotional reward for local leaders is the opportunity to engage with the community.
Every day there are opportunities to connect. It amazes me how few leaders take the time to develop strong ties to the people in their communities. In my experience, I found that being open and accessible paid tremendous dividends personally and politically.
While the personal benefits of making friends and getting to know people are evident, the political ones may not be as obvious—although they should be.
Nothing burns a supporter more than to work hard for a candidate, raise money, open your home for a campaign event, work a poll, wave a sign and canvass a neighborhood only to see your candidate get elected and then shut off communication.
It sounds like that would never happen. But truth be told, I see that very behavior more than I see the opposite. What do you think happens when that same candidate calls you for help during the next election cycle? Click. See you later.
It doesn’t cost much to reach out to supporters via email, a phone call or a quick cup of coffee and yet so many so-called leaders conveniently forget who put them into office.
The best elected officials are servant-leaders and they remember that.
Others get some power and feel that their constituents are there to serve them.
Suddenly, “Joe” insists on being called “Deputy Vice Mayor”—or a state rep refuses to acknowledge your presence unless you call him “leader” because he happened to ascend into the upper ranks of the legislature. It’s appalling—and it happens all the time.
Aside from the intrinsic benefits of being a decent and humble human being, there are real political rewards as well.
Earlier, I referenced how Delray brought on a visionary police chief in 1991. His name was Rick Overman.
Chief Overman was charismatic and brimming with ideas. When he walked into a room, you knew it. He oozed confidence and was exactly what the department needed.
Overman taught me an early lesson that would come in handy time and time again.
“In my job,” he used to say. “It’s not a matter of if, but a matter of when; something bad is going to happen. So every day I try to build a reservoir of good will, because someday I know I will have to draw down on that reservoir. When you need it, you want to know it’s there.”
It was a lesson I took to heart and would be leaders would be wise to heed. In a position of authority, where you are called upon to make tough decisions it helps enormously to have strong relationships which enable you to explain votes and strategic directions that may be controversial. In local politics, just as in national politics, issues have winners and losers. Policies impact people, in fact, local government may impact the quality of life of residents more than any other level of government.
So engage, relate, learn, listen, care, and never stop communicating. There’s nothing worse than a politician who only reaches out during election time. Serve your constituents every single day.
One of the more interesting aspects of democracy is the somewhat random nature of how we choose leaders. A common refrain that we often hear is the need to run government more like a business.
On a lot of levels that makes sense, but how many businesses would entrust the CEO position and their entire slate of directors to the randomness of an election in which too often the choice is between lesser evils?
Given that we embrace democracy, perhaps we should work on building a culture in which we actually take the process of selecting candidates seriously.
In some cities, including my own, attempts to do this are sometimes greeted with charges of “grooming.”
While that is not the most endearing term, preparing prospects for leadership positions may be the most important single thing a community can do to ensure sustainable success.
Unfortunately, too many leadership programs fall short and are often nothing more than superficial tours of community programs and facilities. While visiting the courthouse and sewer plant is fine, they are not serious attempts at fostering leadership.
Communities that seek long-term, stable and effective leadership may want to consider a more formal program in which prospective leaders are assessed, evaluated and given in-depth information on what it takes to lead a city or an organization. It’s helpful for aspiring leaders to understand their strengths and weaknesses and to get a true a picture of what is expected of them if they decide to enter the arena.
Businesses large and small wouldn’t dare entrust their future to unproven people, why should cities?
So what would a community leadership development program look like?
I think it could call on past and current leaders to share their stories; the challenges they faced and how they handled issues and opportunities. It may also include the development of case studies which work well in business schools. Some communities scan the horizon and find cities that have solved similar problems. Visiting those cities and meeting the leaders who made a difference is extremely valuable.
Still, there are a number of factors to consider when choosing your leadership.
Aside from formal training, a community ought to consider an aspirant’s track record before handing them the keys to the budget and policy.
Have they served on city boards? Are they involved with local non-profits? Have they participated in community debates or did they just show up out of nowhere? Have they had success in business? If they’ve been involved on boards did they have a good attendance record? Did they do their homework and participate or did they simply get on a board and waste space?
It’s shocking how little scrutiny we give to prospective candidates.
And yet, once elected, we spend time lamenting how bad they are.
The list of traits—integrity, passion, emotional intelligence, empathy, vision, courage and judgment—outlined above is a great starting point to evaluate those who seek to lead your community.
Regardless of your community’s physical assets, wealth or beauty, without great leadership you will never achieve lasting success. Communities that are serious about creating opportunity and building something special cannot ignore this very basic law of cities.
P.S. this leadership law also applies to business, non-profit organizations, schools etc.
Great leadership creates opportunities and builds immense value. Bad leadership or lack of leadership is a killer.