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Four Skills for Civic Leadership

Balancing stones

What a long strange trip it’s been

-Jerry Garcia

Jerry wasn’t around to experience these past months, and I doubt any of us want to live the same experience that we’ve had. So, I’ve been reflecting on growing from this journey and its relation to my personal and professional life ahead. As I look for the silver lining of the pandemic experience, I am drawn to thinking about the values in the leaders that we have engaged with or seen in action across the country.

Many of us have been the canaries in the economic development mine - warning that the ‘growth’ that many communities were experiencing is not sustainable, creating poverty jobs and ignoring the quality of a place. The global pandemic has added fuel to those issues for everyone to understand better. The weaknesses that the pandemic has exposed and the reactions of some leaders should concern us all. The world needs more civic leaders and fewer personalities.

If this recent period has been a test case for dealing with the increasing impacts of climate change, or other global crises, we are in serious trouble. There will always be differing ideas about tackling an issue, and healthy discourse will provide better actions. But we have a system that rushes to embrace contrarian soundbites no matter how ill-informed and dangerous they are. Our culture embraces shock value over actual impacts.

And that’s that catch: the long-term impact that learns and delivers beyond the crisis or political cycle and can sustain a community is not always easy. This is where civic leadership is more asset than virtue and where it matters the most. The challenge we live with is that civic leadership is messy when people want it to be simple. Civic leadership is not born in 140 characters or through anonymous posts. Civic leadership is created in meeting rooms, in coffee shops and craft breweries, and these days on video calls. I hope that 2021 becomes the year we realize that we all need to communicate a lot more to understand where we want to be as neighbors and be honest about what we need to fix for resilient communities.

In recent months, we have been working with many communities recovering from the impact COVID-19 had and has on their economy, social services, health, and shared resources. These challenges are surmountable but complex and, at times, frustrating because we now feel like we’re ten steps behind where we started before the pandemic.

At the same time, we see a path forward as we support the actions our civic leader friends are trying to accomplish like the first of its kind, Ramsey County’s Economic Competitiveness and Inclusion Plan, the York County Economic Action Plan that has been guiding community recovery and resilience investments and Pulse Reports for a coalition of community leaders in Pittsburgh.

Here are the four key skills that we have observed in the best community leaders during this past year and beyond:

Show Empathy

Simply put, empathy is “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.” Civic leaders need to have the ability to understand the feelings and experiences of an incredible diversity of stakeholders. They need to exercise empathy at times when their personal lives and organizational dynamics may be under unprecedented stress. Civic leaders who practice empathy create pathways to respond to immediate community needs while driving community-focused, long-term economic recovery.

Assess, Act, Repeat

There is no such thing as the status quo or a community that is exactly as it was in the old days; instead, communities are constantly heading in new directions. Thriving leaders swiftly assemble the data needed to understand what that direction is. Often, data and fact-finding will provide a view that is not expected and, at times, painful to deal with, but it is critical to communicate what is not working to build strategies for improvement. And finally, assessing those strategies along the way will create an opportunity for continuous improvement.

Be Realistic

It’s tempting to sugarcoat issues to maintain community confidence when you’re hesitant to present impact scenarios that could sprint out into worst-case scenarios. Successful leaders are balancing a sense of realism with articulating a clear response to the worst case. They recognize that a health-driven economic crisis at the scale we have seen is unprecedented, and the experiences from past recessions will not repeat. They take a ‘brace for impact’ approach and are developing the plans to respond as with bold and inspirational solutions.

Convene Good People

There is strength in numbers as we face this crisis head on. It is essential to convene stakeholders to work together in recovery and to ensure that new and diverse voices are represented so that the recovery solutions are working towards more equitable development. This crisis impacts all of our systems - health, education, childcare, business, economic development, food, transportation, arts and entertainment, and beyond. Understanding interconnection and capacity across all systems is the only way to ensure a balanced recovery.

Let me know what you think are skills needed by civic leaders by sending a note to [email protected].


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