The Power of Local Leadership

Our future depends on our choices.

Our future depends on our choices.

I’m a big fan of New York Times columnist David Brooks.
Even though our politics don’t quite line up, I always glean something from Brooks’ writing.

This week, Brooks wrote an excellent column in the wake of the Dallas, Baton Rouge and Falcon Heights violence.

It was a quick trip through history and a treatise on how societies can come unglued after major upheavals such as economic dislocation, technological advances and war.
While Brooks concludes that we are not quite broken, he does believe we are peering over the abyss. It’s a dangerous place for a country to be and is often characterized as polarization after tragic events rather than a coming together.
Brooks opines that the answer to America’s problems during similar fraught eras has always been leadership. He is spot on.  Leadership responds to the moment and helps us navigate to a better place.
What’s especially interesting is Brooks’ contention that the answers to America’s many challenges may come from local leadership–local police, local non profit leaders, neighborhood reformers and mayors.
All across America, cops, educators, local elected officials, public servants and local innovators are making strides and changing lives.
Brooks is hopeful that some of these game changers will make the leap and fix our ailing and frequently embarrassing national politics.
Lord, I hope so.
Meanwhile, it’s clear to me that the places that will thrive and create opportunities are those cities and communities that are blessed with dedicated, visionary and brave civic entrepreneurs who fix neighborhoods, improve schools, eradicate crime and find ways to create economic opportunity for all.
If you’re lucky to live in such a place count yourself among the fortunate.

But it’s not enough to sit back and count your blessings because transformation is never ending and you can’t grow complacent or declare victory. Your work is never done. And progress can be more easily squandered than gained.

It’s critically important to find and nurture local leaders, empower them, support them, help them, defend them and if you do–watch your city soar.
If you are not so lucky and you are plagued by corrosive leadership or lack of leadership– get involved and resolve to make change.

Bad leaders=bad outcomes. That’s the law. Wish it was different, but its immutable.

On the local level it’s possible to change things with an injection of one or two solid, mature leaders who realize that being an elected official is a job to do not a job to have. There’s a difference.

It’s not about their resumes or egos or personal preferences, it’s about moving a community forward by serving it.
If you are not sure what you have on your local council or commission, take the time and figure it out.

Attend a meeting, view a few online, email an elected official and see what happens.
If you watch a meeting observe whether they are focused on ideas, opportunities and problem solving or whether they are fixated on each other or grandstanding statements. It’s easy to tell. Watch how they treat the public and city staff, are they courteous, warm and professional or are they dismissive, rude and distracted? Do your elected officials ask questions, do they listen to facts or are they reading from a script with a closed mind? Are they empathetic? Are they able to frame issues, calm the community and focus on what’s important? Or do they fan the flames and major in the minor?
If you send an email on a local issue or concern do they respond in a timely fashion? Is their response” canned” gobbledygook or detailed and sincere? You’ll know.
Positive change can happen quickly when the right people are in the right seats on the bus. You’ll spin your wheels if they are not on the bus and you’ll eradicate whatever progress that’s been made if the hard workers in your city  are under that bus.
Block by block, brick by brick, that’s how we get America and our cities moving again.

All Politics Is Local


We are still a few months away from the first votes being cast and many voters are already sick and tired of presidential politics.

Whether it’s fatigue with the latest “Trumpism” or exhaustion with the Clinton’s history, Americans seem restless, more than a little anxious and increasingly wary that solutions are going to come from Washington.

The latest Rasmussen Poll says 63 percent of Americans think the country is moving in the wrong direction; a whopping 35 percent more than the 28 percent of Americans who like what’s happening.

The President’s approval rating is in negative territory and voters seem to prefer root canal to Congress.

But all across America, citizens seem happier with their local government. With the notable exception of Rahm Emanuel in Chicago, Mayors across the USA seem to be thriving. We are in a golden age for cities, with new investments being made in the arts, housing, infrastructure and placemaking.

Jobs are being created, technology hubs are incubating new businesses and entrepreneurial ecosystems are being put together—sometimes in unlikely places.

Baby boomers and millennials are seeking compact, walkable and vibrant communities. Even suburbia is beginning to add urban amenities to attract talent and investment.

I see it in South Florida, where Miami is exploding with energy and smaller towns such as Delray and Boca are attracting record investments and interesting entrepreneurs seeking small town charm with big city amenities that include culture and an incredible food scene.

Austin—long a bastion of cool– is riding its music scene, the South by Southwest Festival and the University of Texas to great heights—literally– with investments that include The Independent, a 58-story “jenga” style condominium that is said to be the tallest residential building west of the Mississippi River.

Story after story is being written about Detroit’s renaissance, the marvelous investment by Quicken Loans founder Dan Gilbert in the downtown and the wonderful resilience of Detroit entrepreneurs who are breathing new life into abandoned buildings and neighborhoods.

Oklahoma City, a bastion of conservatism, has invested in its downtown and has become a magnet for businesses and an example of how quality of life can improve as a result of local leadership and strategic government spending.

All across the U.S., Mayors are not bogged down by partisanship and city governments are free of Washington’s pathologies (special interest money, endless politics, a byzantine legislative process) and therefore can innovate and gasp…actually get things done and move a community forward.

Imagine that.

I think most Americans do; which is why there is so much anger and discontent from sea to shining sea.

Americans are doers, problem solvers, leaders. It’s in our DNA as a nation. But Washington no longer reflects that American ethos. And it hasn’t for a long time.

The best leaders in our nation are sadly not running for president, but a few are running for local office and many are seeking to solve the world’s problems through entrepreneurial efforts. In the best case scenario, those who aspire to build their cities can work with entrepreneurs to grow their local economies and solve some of America’s challenges. We are seeing that in Ithaca, NY where a young mayor, Svante Myrick, has created innovative job programs and has linked environmentalism to urbanism and vice versa.

Perhaps we can get our country moving again by focusing less on the bombastic, cynical and nasty nature of our national politics and more on the practical, solution-oriented and potential of local leadership.