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Leaders Stand Up

I am always intrigued by the annual lists of ‘Best Leaders’ appearing in some of this Country’s most prominent magazines. One would assume that, with all the nifty people identified, the U.S. must be awash in the type of leadership that can guide us to whatever promise land we envision. However, without diminishing any of the fine people who appeared in various publications over the past year, what seems strange is the dearth of local leaders identified for their enormous contribution to communities throughout this nation.

Last year Robert Samuelson wrote a nice piece citing trust as the central factor in instilling confidence in times of turmoil. Whether the financial, industrial or public sector, progress depends on the willingness of people to accept challenge and move forward. In The Great Confidence Game (Newsweek, September 29, 2008) Samuelson references the financial system, but confidence is just as important for every other facet of American life. We are a nation of believers…just give us something to believe in and we’re on board. But lately, with a year of acute challenge behind us, it seems that people desire a finite local presence – a touchstone that warrants trust and builds confidence. As the recovery struggles onward, the ability to generate confidence will become our most precious asset.

As I noted some time ago in another post, communities seek four things during difficult times – Clarity, Direction, Truth, and a Dignified, Harmonious Leadership Style. They also require forums for exchange and opportunities to seek understanding. Above all, people need a practical vision of the future that is believable and achievable; the days of ethereal vision statements are over.

In one periodical listing America’s Best Leaders, I recently noted that, while there are a few deserving educators, most selections are apportioned among the fields of science, health care, economics, business, the arts, and activism/ advocacy. Only one local government leader, Miami’s exceptional Mayor, Manny Diaz, is cited as one of America’s outstanding leaders. As president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, Mayor Diaz is a great choice and epitomizes the best of local government leadership. If you are unaware of his contributions, you should review further – he’s pretty amazing.

But what of those who toil daily to keep the wheels from falling off in cities, counties and state agencies across America? The ICMA annually recognizes exceptional leaders among a wide variety of local governments and always celebrates their many contributions to their local communities. But is this enough? When I first began the Leaving a Legacy and Public Futures programs, the premise was (and remains) that some of the best leaders, innovators, and managers in America are found in state and local government. This is where the rubber truly hits the road and where things must get done. Potholes on Main Street are there for all to see – as are public parks, sports facilities, emergency response by police and fire, snow removal, water, wastewater, public health and zoning issues. Local leadership is magnified and scrutinized; it is challenged with insufficient funds, growing demand, and people in need. Above all, local leaders are accessible – they are on the front lines every day.

I am unsure of the mechanism but I would like to spread the news to the media and the public: Many of the truly great leaders in America are local officials, managers, and hard working employees. If things get really tough in this Country – and the signs point to more challenges ahead – it will be local government that responds and performs. Maybe then local leaders will be recognized.

As with virtually all of the ‘Best Leader’ selections, few, if any of the best local leaders will ever seek recognition. Perhaps it is enough to know they are there. And just maybe that will be enough to elevate confidence and trust to new levels. Something has to change.

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)