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A Certain Legacy

This morning NPR is dedicating much of its program space to remembering Ted Kennedy, who passed away this week. Comments and tributes aired from those showing their respects were terribly emotional and all had a similar message – this man spent his life helping people. Regardless of the personal and family tragedy that followed the Kennedys, the Senator never lost focus on what mattered most – communities, people, and progress.

Democrats, Republicans and Independents share a common perspective about Senator Kennedy. While known for his vigorous support of legislation dealing with human and social rights, health care, immigration, and education, he also believed in the legacy of free enterprise. He was far more than a ‘liberal’ who won accolades for championing the rights of the poor and middle class. He collaborated on a great deal of legislation authored by Republican Senate colleagues better known for their support of business. Kennedy rarely shared that spotlight. He understood the value of public policy and its relation to commerce. He was all about jobs, small business, and economic development; he merely chose to speak out most often about what was his most enduring value – helping those who cannot help themselves. Whether school children, immigrants, or the homeless, Ted Kennedy cared and it showed.

I would imagine that, for many readers a great deal of their lives is devoted to the concept of Legacy and preparing for an uncertain and challenging future. I believe the Senator embraced the highest ideals of the Common Interest – creating a nation and society that cares, shares, and reaches out. This cannot be done without sacrifice and without an understanding that every community must take care of its own. More than ever, our focus must be balanced between social fabric and economic development. Senator Kennedy had an innate sense of this and was a master – probably the greatest– at seeking balance.

 I feel a great loss. One’s political affiliations matter little at times like this. We all lost a champion and a voice for reason. I am unsure how much balance will be lost in the Senate. But I do believe that Kennedy’s spirit and commitment to themes central to social progress and well being will endure. Whatever your viewpoint, I encourage some introspection about what he stood for, and some reflection about how we can all make our communities stronger, more cohesive, and better prepared for what lies ahead.

 

 

With over three decades working in and with federal, state and local government, John Luthy understands public agencies.  Known for his real world, straight talking style, he is a leading futurist specializing in city, county, state, and federal long-range thinking and planning. An innovative and dynamic presenter, John is frequently asked to speak and consult on how to prepare public organizations and communities for emerging challenges. He holds both the MPH and MPA degrees as well as a doctorate in education.  www.futurescorp.com  (public futures)

Parables and Realities

The current rush to reduce government reminds me of the old parable that goes something like this: Back in the Day, a gaggle of old farmers were lamenting the cost of raising crops and the high cost of maintaining plow horses. As one of the younger farmers recounted his financial problems, a senior member of the group suggested that, if he replaced just 10 percent of his horses’ oats with sawdust, he could save quite a bit on his feed bill, especially if he had several horses. And, the best part was, the horses wouldn’t even notice! Upon trying this simple solution, the young farmer was able to continue production and began saving money. This appeared to be an ideal solution, and, since the horses didn’t seem to mind, over the months he continued increasing the amount of sawdust in the feed until it approached 80 percent. By then, the farmer was saving so much money on feed he was able to overlook (i.e. rationalize) the fact that his horses’ performance had grown less robust and production had suffered. Entranced with thoughts of how he could spend all the money he was saving, he did not consider the future.  Then, one day, his horses died.

Growing Workloads

In my travels, I see public agency workloads growing along with expectations and scrutiny. But this is occurring at a time when retiring employees are not being replaced, training is being reduced or cut entirely, hours are being reduced and layoffs abound. We are witnessing divergent courses – a growth in public demand, expectation and oversight and a decline in capability and capacity to perform. Of course, public employees then catch hell because they are not performing. Never mind the fact that their facilities and equipment are aging, training has been cut, FTEs are insufficient to achieve expected results, and overall infrastructure is deteriorating. Most employees are hard working, diligent, thoughtful and darned good at what they do. But after a while, insufficient budgets coupled with growing workloads do not promote high spirits, commitment, and sustainability. No one wants to work in a place where there is growing instability, few positive comments, and little respect for imbedded expertise. If there were more private sector jobs, we would see many top people leaving government. In these times, a little appreciation goes a long way!

More Bubbles

A few weeks ago I commented that there were more bubbles about to burst on the American culture and economy. How will we respond to $6 or $8 per gallon gasoline? When will cars that get 50 miles per gallon be affordable to the average citizen? Who cares about cash for clunkers when weighing that whopping $3500 against a $40,000 Prius or $35,000 Volt? There are more financial issues that need to work their way through the system…it might be three to five years before the economy re-centers. What can school (and all special) districts, cities and counties do in the meantime?

Understanding the Future

It is not about KNOWING the future. Just understanding the drivers that will impact and promote change is a great step. Many government agencies tend to hold on to old ways, archaic systems, and antiquainted policies. Smart leaders are getting ahead of the curve…planning now for anticipated events that are generally predictable. The price of gasoline and asphalt WILL go up. What will that mean to urban/ suburban and comprehensive planning? How must transportation planning change? If we end up with really big trucks and really small cars along with really long trains, what will that mean? Do we have the required plans, revenue, systems, facilities and expertise? Are we actively seeking these essential elements?

This country cannot squeeze down public entities so far that basic services are eliminated. As with all affluent societies, Americans want the level of service to which they have become accustomed. Frankly, that is no longer possible. However one interprets the parable above, the message seems clear. While significant budget cutting is prudent and triage is part of management, care must be taken to view the whole picture. There must be some clarity about how the future is developing and plans prepared accordingly. Most planning I review is short-term and very operations oriented. Let’s get on our tiptoes and look over the horizon. Remember, the future is where we’re going to live. It’s going to arrive no matter what we do, so we might as well be architects of the desired future – at least to the extent we can.    

With over three decades working in and with federal, state and local government, John Luthy understands public agencies. Known for his real world, straight talking style, he is a leading futurist specializing in city, county, state, and federal long-range thinking and planning. An innovative and dynamic conference presenter, John is frequently asked to speak and consult on how to prepare public organizations and communities for emerging challenges. He holds both the MPH and MPA degrees as well as a doctorate in education.

Do Chief Executives Matter?

It seems obvious that corporate CEOs like Apple Computer co-founder Steve Jobs are more than consequential. In June 2008 Apple’s shares lost close to $5 after the company admitted that his ‘health issues’ were more serious than first reported. This one incident initially cost the company around $4 billion in market value. Jobs’ history is well-known. His creative genius (along with Steve Wozniak) allowed Apple to flourish around the Macintosh desktop computer during the 1980s then rebound through success of the Mac Book, IPod and IPhone during the 1990s and 2000s. His creativity, prescience and relentless drive to innovate have allowed Apple to grow into a corporate icon. Similar stories abound around such corporate giants as Warren Buffett, Bill Gates, Jack Welch, or Larry Bossidy. The question then, is whether these CEOs have something that differentiates them from other managers and does it make them indispensible? More critically, do CEOs, in either public or private organizations really matter?

The Public Executive

In his book, Who’s Your City (Basic Books 2008), Richard Florida cites Jane Jacobs’ comment that communities everywhere are filled with creative vigor, but many are ‘managed’ by squelchers who are control freaks who constantly place barriers between innovative employees and community leaders and opportunities for progress. In these cases, narrow-minded, uncreative, uncompromising executives are the antithesis of thoughtful civic development grounded in hard data and a vision of the future. Having worked in government agencies across the Country, I can say that CEOs do indeed matter. Whether mayors, city managers, county commissioners, county administrators, or governors, appointed and elected leaders must have the essential characteristics of openness, vision, awareness, a world view, and the willingness to collaborate. Without these characteristics, their tenure is often viewed as dull, tedious, frustrating, and repressive.

Leadership of the Future

Paul Osterman, a professor at MIT’s Sloan School of Management, has stated that middle managers are the real heroes of successful organizations. While CEOs might come and go, the stability, character, skill, and institutional knowledge of middle managers is generally sufficient to continue an organization’s performance. The enormous pace of change will continue to stress elected and appointed CEOs. More importantly, it will require them to more effectively utilize the mid- to late-career professionals who populate public agencies. This will become more essential as downsizing occurs at every level of government. How CEOs address talent, training, and the sharing of institutional memory will define their ability to lead. Focus must be internal (organization development and performance) as well as external (mission-driven and community centered).

Situational Leadership

The real question is not IF leadership matters, but when it matters. Public leaders – especially elected officials- must respond to situations that are often outside their experience. The ability to seek counsel, review facts, and make decisions that are in the best Common Interest also defines their tenure. The days of figurehead public CEOs is over. Communities need strong, sensible, innovative thinkers who are focused on the future – not the status quo. Transformation will occur. The only question is whether public leaders/ managers will strategically lead or be buffeted about by gale force winds of change.

How would employees and communities rate your various CEOs? What are their characteristics and are the essential elements of leadership, vision, creativity, and progress inherent in their style? IF given the opportunity to strengthen local leadership, is there a willingness to undertake personal and professional growth? Are local leaders prepared for future challenges? CEOs matter…and will matter more every year.

With over three decades working in and with federal, state and local government, John Luthy understands public agencies.  Known for his real world, straight talking style, he is a leading futurist specializing in city, county, state, and federal long-range thinking and planning. An innovative and dynamic presenter, John is frequently asked to speak and consult on how to prepare public organizations and communities for emerging challenges. He holds both the MPH and MPA degrees as well as a doctorate in education.