Who Gets It?

Now that I’m an old city manager, I am occasionally asked to speak on panels relating to local government at universities, conferences, and other assorted places.  My most recent appearance was at a gathering of graduate students at Willamette University, where two retired colleagues and I told stories and offered opinions about our careers.  I have known one of the other speakers for many years, but I was surprised at how different his view of our job is from my own.

My colleague expressed the view that in order to be a successful city manager a person needs to have the desire to be the person in charge or “drive to survive,” as he phrased it.  He pointed out that he was his high school football team’s quarterback, so it was natural for him to become a city manager.  My friend was successful and served as a city manager for one Oregon community for more than 25 years.

My path to city management was somewhat different.  I got interested in the profession in graduate school, where I saw city management as an opportunity to help solve community problems while allowing me to provide for my family.  I do not think I thought much about being solely responsible for the city or even about being the person “in charge.”  I also believe that whatever success I’ve enjoyed as a city manager has had as much to do with the people I’ve worked with as it has with my “drive” or ambition.  I accept the responsibilities of my position without feeling that I am required to be the person who has all the answers. 

The idea that one person has the knowledge or capacity to make a city work well is, in my opinion, as dangerous as the notion that a single political leader or a great industrialist has the skill and understanding to change the course of the national or world economy.  I think effective leaders need to listen to and understand a wide range of views before making decisions about complex subjects.  Managing small Oregon cities may not be rocket science, but it requires some fundamental knowledge and a large dose of humility to make consistently good choices.  We should take our critics seriously, even when we believe they are misguided or wrong. 

A little known Irish economist publicly predicted his country’s economic crisis some years before it happened, but the nation’s large newspapers refused to print his opinions because they believed his thoughts were “alarmist.”  This story repeats itself in Iceland, the U.S., and other countries around the world where people become conditioned to accepting conventional wisdom because the consequences of rejecting it are discomforting.

We can and do, as individuals, make a difference every day.  My colleague was a successful manager because he generally made good decisions and listened to those around him.  I think it would be a mistake, however, to believe that any one of us will always get it right.  Looking beyond ourselves and our own interest groups is a critical leadership skill and the only real answer to the question, “Who gets it?”