By David Unmacht
As I’ve mentioned here before, Centerville Mayor and League President D. Love has an oft-repeated message: We are stronger together. By coincidence, the church I attend in Eagan is undertaking a self-reflection and futuristic assessment titled Better Together. Although D. is a professed man of faith, these similar themes did not come from any collaboration, but from a new sense of energy, passion, and purposeful commitment to engage all residents to build more cohesive and integrated communities.
Leaders in local government have a visible front-row seat in the life of a community. Demands are high; much is expected. Your position offers a clear invitation, with no RSVP required, to step forward and take responsibility for improving your community and bringing about positive change that enhances the lives of all its residents. You already know this both intrinsically and intuitively. I am advocating for you to take advantage of this front-row seat.
I am reminded of the adage, “Change is good. You go first,” which often brings a smile, a laugh, and then an absence of action. No one wants to go first; it’s fraught with risk and little reward. This column is about encouragement, opportunity, and permission to take smart risks and lead the way. After all, if not you, then who? I offer three ideas — not unique to city government — yet highly relevant to your personal and professional leadership journey.
Tolerance. It’s not that we lack for viewpoints, it’s that we don’t listen — we’ve found ourselves stuck in a box of right or wrong, with no middle ground, a box of distrust and fear and of intolerance of anyone who does not share the same lens in life. I admit, I’ve found myself in this place, too. We question motives and intent, often without any real understanding or knowledge.
A nonprofit group called Braver Angels is leading a national conversation aimed at bringing people together to bridge divides and break down barriers. Their lessons of tolerance are simple: Engage with people whose views are different from yours, treat them with honesty and respect, and find common ground. (Read more about Braver Angels.)
Rather than berating, blaming, or ignoring opposing views, welcome them. Find new ways to sit down to talk and agree to disagree. You will be amazed at the power of your actions and deeds, at how it feels when the people you perceive to be adversaries are simply concerned residents and community members who want the best, just as you do.
Relationships. An administrator colleague of mine was recently recognized for her leadership and work in local government. In reflecting on her award, she remarked, “It’s all about relationships.” That is so true.
We live and work in a pressured political environment. We make decisions that make people happy and mad. We chose a career that puts us in front of others, that shines a spotlight on who we are and how we act. As former St. Anthony Village Mayor Jerry Faust often said, “Pressure is a privilege.” But with this privilege comes a responsibility, and that is to each other.
In my career, I have learned it is often less about what you do and more about how you do it that builds or destroys reputations. Treat people, even those who disagree with you, with respect. Open, honest, respectful conversations build tolerance and relationships.
Champion. The lesson and encouragement here is simple: Bridging divides and bringing disparate voices together within your community requires your talent, but also your name. Making real and sustained progress in community engagement requires a champion and someone willing to put their reputation on the line to devote the energy and resources toward the stated goals.
One of the proudest moments in my career was leading the change in workplace culture in Scott County. It was a significant personal and professional challenge. After one year of much effort, a staff member asked me, “Is culture change all you talk about?” When I heard that question, I knew I was making a difference; she was listening. The moral of this story is when a leader champions, commits, and persists, your audience takes notice.
City leaders are always looking for ways to improve their community. By being a champion to build tolerance and relationships, your city and community will be stronger and better together.
David Unmacht is executive director of the League of Minnesota Cities. Contact: email@example.com or (651) 281-1205.