Vision Endures, Politics Fade

The majestic Back Cove Trail in Portland, ME.

In my book “Adventures in Local Politics” I write about the power of transformational leadership.I’m talking about the kind of leadership that makes an enduring difference, the kind that transcends petty politics, personality conflicts and feuds that serve no one.

That kind of leadership is rare these days.

But needed now more than ever and in every walk of life—government, academia, health care, business, education and the non-profit world.We know these types of leaders when they arrive. They make us feel safe, cared for and excited about the future. They are inspirational visionaries but they are also about getting things done. Ideas are great, but implementation is what really counts. You have to get things done.

The importance  of transformational leadership hit me recently on a long walk on the Back Cove Trail in Portland, Maine.The trail is 3.25 miles long around a picturesque lake brimming with breathtaking views. It’s a simple concept really. Just a trail around a large body of water.But the trail delivers so much more than a dirt path…. the trail speaks to a vision and it embodies the values of a city and it’s long ago mayor—James Phinney Baxter.

The trail and a ring of connecting parks was the brainchild of Mayor Baxter who envisioned an “emerald necklace” around his city.  The Back Cove Trail connects to other open spaces including the magnificent Evergreen Cemetery which is on the National Register of Historic Places and is a wonderful place to soak up history amidst statuary that forces you to slow down and learn about the lives of those who came before us.

Across from the cemetery sits Mayor Baxter Woods, with its mighty white ash trees, shaded vistas and cool pines. The land was gifted to Portland by Mayor Baxter who was quite wealthy in addition to being civic minded which brings us back to the Back Cove Trail.

Mayor Baxter had a vision for a walking trail and public access around the lake and that required private landowners dedicating some property to make it happen.In 1894, Mayor Baxter took Portland City Council members to Boston’s Back Bay Fens to see the restoration efforts by the landscape architects Olmsted, Olmsted, and Eliot.He said, “We may see …what Boston has done in transforming similar vile places into beauty spots.”Baxter hired the Olmsted firm to create a plan but there was opposition.There’s always opposition.But Mayor Baxter pushed ahead.

He convinced landowners to donate a 100 foot strip of land along the shore.  Opponents weren’t impressed. They thought the plan was overly extravagant. This isn’t surprising, there are always people who fight ambition and vision. If they are in charge, they can choke the life out of a place. It’s one thing to discuss design, it’s another to say “don’t do anything, we’re done.”

Friends, we are never done. The future is always watching and waiting. Good leaders, the ones who make a difference, serve the present and try to serve the future as well. They strive to do big and important things. Bad leaders (an oxymoron) get caught up in the nonsense. They major in the minor. Mayor Baxter was not that kind of guy.

More often than not, transformational leaders pay a price. They are OK with that because they believe in their vision.

Baxter lost his bid for re-election and his plan was stalled until he was re-elected. After 23 years, yes 23 years, Back Cove Boulevard opened in 1917 with Baxter riding in the first car along his dream vista. The road was eventually renamed Baxter Boulevard.

Today, it’s a showstopper enjoyed by more than 350,000 walkers, runners and bicyclists a year. In a word, it’s stunning and provides value beyond anything we can measure. After all, how do you measure vision? Beauty? Access to the magic of nature?

What’s important to note was that Mayor Baxter was willing to risk his seat for an important idea. How many politicians are willing to do that?

It’s also important to note that he was later restored to office. I wonder if it’s because voters came around and saw the wisdom in his “emerald” vision.

Today, because of that big idea,  thousands  benefit by using that trail to exercise, sightsee and get inspiration for paintings, photographs and in my case—to write this blog.I’ve seen a few transformational leaders in my time— people whose courage, ability and work ethic enable them to do enduring things.

Locally, I think former Mayor Tom Lynch qualifies, so does Mayor David Schmidt and I was always impressed with what Mayor Nancy Graham did for West Palm Beach.Frances Bourque, who founded Old School Square, qualifies and so do Chiefs Kerry Koen and Rick Overman whose leadership left lasting marks on our fire and police departments.Lynn University President Kevin Ross and Boca Lead founder Bill Mitchell are two other leaders who have transformed their parts of the world.  There are more and we’ll get to them in future blogs but you get the idea.

My book encourages transformational thinking because it’s the only kind of thinking that moves the needle and we need to move the needle. Everywhere you look there are needs and opportunities.I work with a transformational business leader and I’ve witnessed first hand what than can mean for people and industries.Carl DeSantis founded Rexall Sundown back in the day and he and his team (he always shares credit) transformed the vitamin and nutrition space.Then he discovered a small beverage company on 4th Avenue in downtown Delray that recently received a $550 million investment from Pepsi that made headlines all over the world.Carl’s steadfast belief in Celsius enabled the success that has transformed the energy drink space and created a whole lot of shareholder wealth.

Sometimes visions get derailed—for good or temporarily.

Mayor Woods was defeated, came back and completed his vision of an emerald necklace.

Right now, Frances Bourque and those who love Old School Square are wandering the desert waiting for good leadership to return to Delray Beach. But guess what, her vision endures. Those buildings were saved and they will benefit this community once again. So dream big my friends. Support those who have a positive vision.We owe it to the future. Because sometimes–if we are fortunate and if we insist on making the world better— those visions endure.

The emerald necklace endures.

My Santa Experience

Mrs. Claus came for a visit. She’s definitely on the nice list.

A few months ago, I was asked to become a volunteer Santa at Delray’s spectacular holiday display at Old School Square.

It was an honor and one that I shared with several close friends who were also asked to put on the red suit and greet scores of children who come to “Santa’s House” located right next to the famous 100 foot Christmas tree.

It may sound silly, but playing Santa is a big deal.

My good friend Jim Nolan nailed the role for years and years and he told me how special the experience was for the children who sit on Santa’s lap and for Santa himself.

It’s a magical experience to hold a baby for a photo as they prepare for their first Christmas and watch new parents glow with joy.

It’s also very special to meet a vast array of beautiful children who believe in Santa with every ounce of love in their hearts.

But before I tell you how wonderful it all was—the hugs, the smiles, the awe you see in a child’s eyes, the offbeat questions (are Reindeer’s smarter than dogs?) and yes the ones who see you and hide in their mom’s arms —I have a confession to make.

The whole experience stressed me out.

I’m not one to put on a red suit, white wig, beard and gloves. It’s just not me.

And so I was stressed out about my four hour shift last Sunday night.

Would I make a credible Santa? Could I answer the questions? Could I ask the right ones to draw out the shy children and encourage them to share their Christmas wish lists?

We did receive training at the beautiful home of Charles and Elise Johnson that featured an actual graduate of Santa School. (There is such a thing).  We learned to “Ho Ho Ho” and how to handle difficult questions and what to do if a child was frightened by the Santa experience. Our instructor looked exactly like the real thing and during the social part of the training showed me his drivers license. It read S. Claus. Could it have really been him?


Anyway, let’s just say I was nervous.

Aside from the desire to deliver for the kids, there’s the logistics of the assignment.

Wearing a beard and a warm suit for several hours is not an easy thing in Florida. And I will forever sympathize with the Santa’s I encounter from here on out.

Several of the toddlers I met enjoyed touching the beard and then had trouble getting untangled. Good thing it wasn’t real hair or it might have hurt.

Anyway, I absolutely loved the experience. And it was an experience.

My excellent helper/photographer Rachel  and I met with children of all ages including several grandmas (one wanted a grandpa for Christmas), 20 somethings (one asked for a 1965 Chevy Impala and the other asked for world peace) and a homeless woman who just wanted a hug—that wish was granted.

All in all it was a magical experience. Not sure I will repeat it, but if you haven’t tried it I highly recommend it. Just make sure you can find an air-conditioned space to sit and a comfortable white beard.






Land Of Hope And Dreams

Bruce Springsteen and his wife Patti Scialfa after a show at the Walter Kerr Theatre on Broadway.

I can’t let my Springsteen on Broadway experience pass without sharing some takeaways with you.
First, the show is remarkable.
The power. The passion. The sharing. The stories. The humor. The descriptions of life and landscapes are masterful.
And the music…well the music is sublime.

With the exception of two songs performed with his wife Patti Scialfa, the show is all Bruce. Just a piano and an acoustic guitar.
Bruce’s songwriting prowess often overshadows  his guitar playing but on the night we saw him we marveled at how his acoustic filled the Walter Kerr Theatre.

It’s a rich sound. Powerful. And it allowed him to change arrangements on songs giving them new texture and meaning.

The stories and themes that accompanied the music were a big part of the night. Bruce covered a lot of ground as he told his life story weaving in themes ranging from love and trust to parenthood and aging.
As he we all age…there’s a poignancy that comes with a Springsteen performance.
We know it won’t last forever.

We know we won’t last forever.

And so we appreciate the moments more, we savor the experiences, the feelings, the closeness and the love we have for not only the music (which is truly magnificent) but for the community this man and the E Street Band have created since 1973.

Last week, I wrote that Springsteen was about hope. And he is. But he’s also about community.
He’s worked hard to create it. He’s worked hard to scale it and he’s worked hard to deepen it and keep it going. There’s lessons to be learned from how he’s built and sustained a large tribe. There’s also lessons in why it’s meaningful to belong to…something.

Bruce closed the show with a story about returning to his hometown of Freehold, N.J. recently only to find a beloved childhood tree had been removed.
He was angry and saddened by the loss. But he also noticed that the roots system was still in place.

While the physical tree was gone, he felt the energy of the tree was very much intact.

He concluded with a prayer and a wish that the community he had built, the music he had created, would hopefully live on. Much like the roots system of the tree.
As I reflect on the show, I realized that I just loved this message.

In many ways we all try to build communities, families, businesses, works of art, relationships and more. It’s imperfect, it’s lifelong and sometimes we succeed and sometimes we fail. But we hope it adds up to something. We hope it means something. I’m sure it does.

We also hope it lasts, even if we know that we won’t.

Bruce talked about the magic of his legendary E Street. How when you experience magic–one plus one somehow equals three. How true.

And so I thought back on my life and my friends. How when it clicks you can move mountains, make lasting memories with good friends, create a family, start entrepreneurial ventures, grow organizations and touch lives.
That’s what it’s all about: striving for magic, working hard to make it happen, taking risks and enjoying the journey knowing that there’s pain, loss and setbacks but love, joy and passion too.

In the song “Land of Hope and Dreams”  Bruce sings of a mythical train where there is room for everyone. You don’t need a ticket, you just climb aboard. The destination is a land of hope and dreams, a place where we all find love, acceptance and freedom.

And in the End..

8daysWe went to see the Ron Howard documentary Eight Days a Week over the weekend.
I’ve been a Beatles fan since childhood even though I was only six when the band broke up in 1970.
While the film, which chronicles The Beatles “touring years” (1963-1966), was available for streaming on Hulu we made the trek to Fort Lauderdale to watch it on the big screen at Cinema Paradiso, a converted church that is home to a non profit film club now known as Savor Films.
We even ran into a few Delray folks, who are also Beatles fanatics.
Watching the movie with other people is a communal experience and you could feel the emotion and energy radiating in the theater. Yes, The Beatles are still magical.
And it’s fun to think of why that is so.

Sure the music is incredible. It not only has held up for 50 plus years, if it’s possible it seems to get better with age.
Yes, the band also had amazing chemistry but there’s something deeper at play here.
I’m not sure it can ever be captured or completely diagnosed but one factor in the band’s enduring popularity are the feelings The Beatles are able to elicit. The music just makes you happy and conjures up all sorts of warm memories.
And because we seem to be in a somewhat dark place these days in America and elsewhere, the music elicits a few tears as well as we remember a better, more hopeful time.
The documentary emphasized the friendship and loyalty between John, Paul, George and Ringo. They were “mates”, protective of one another and fiercely loyal to the enterprise.
Until they weren’t and that’s when things went awry.
It was simple in the beginning, Paul relates and then it grew complicated before falling apart.
And perhaps there’s a lesson in that.
The need to be loyal.

The importance of friendship.

The power of passion and the enduring magic of community.

There’s also a poignant lesson to process.  Even the greatest things in life don’t last. There’s a beginning, a middle and an end.
Eight Days A Week captures the beginning of Beatlemania–a phenomenon never seen before or since. It’s a must see. If you love The Beatles you will be moved.
We were. We were also appreciative of the magic.
These four ‘cheeky’ lads from Liverpool  changed everything. They changed the world…for the better. What a concept.