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The Seven Leadership Qualities for Times of Civic Disruption

In local government leadership circles we often discuss “disruptive technology” when dramatic changes in technology innovation turns established industries upside down. In politics, campaigns such as those mounted by billionaire Donald Trump and socialist Bernie Sanders, and the subsequent criminal investigation of Hillary Clinton appear to be similarly “disruptive” civic events, attracting many new participants into the political processes while exposing currents of mistrust, inequity and doubt in the integrity of our public institutions. This political environment further aggravates underlying racial unrest and fears of terrorism resulting in an epidemic of civic tension and instability in many communities.  As we await the final Presidential election results let’s focus on the seven qualities of public sector leadership appropriate in times of fear, distrust, and political disruption.

1. Leaders generate trust in our political system

America, The Owner

Leaders at all levels can instill trust in our democratic systems. A recent book, America, The Owner’s Manual, by former Florida Governor and US Senator Bob Graham models this instructive and reassuring style of leadership. The author is the founder of the Bob Graham Center for Public Service at the University of Florida which instructs college students, adults and educators on effective citizenship. Written as an owner’s manual, it focuses on how citizens can organize civic campaigns, impact policy agendas, communicate with government officials, make effective public presentations in meetings and use social media for advocacy. Each chapter highlights successful citizen initiated activities to improve their communities and build coalitions with other citizens. The book serves as a “hands on” guide for any citizen seeking effective participation through practical “tips from the pros” from government officials, civic activists and social media experts.

2. Ethical leadership matters.

In 2015, a Pew Charitable Trusts survey found that 74 percent of Americans believed that most elected officials didn't care what people thought. Regardless of the outcome of the upcoming November election, what is certain is local government leaders will be faced with the challenge to incorporate an increasingly polarized citizenry into the democratic processes of our local governments. The healing balm of civic hope that can bring people together best resides in local government officials that are known to have integrity, are accessible, and who will listen to their concerns about their family’s future wellbeing. Our profession’s reform movement roots, professional integrity, and promotion of ethical leadership has never been more essential or needed in our communities.

3. Leaders today must be civic healers.

An escalation of violence against citizens and police officers vividly demonstrates that successful public leaders must practice the new leadership skill of “civic healing” to assure resilient communities. Civic healing after such traumatic events demands rapid apology for failure and supportive empathy from public administrators as well as transparency and justice in operational reviews and investigations of wrong doing. However, civic healing will not be achieved without an ongoing and higher level of meaningful civic engagement by our citizens. A democratic government cannot long be estranged from its citizenry nor abandon our public servants employed in dangerous law enforcement activities. Civic healing brings a community resolve to recognize our common aspirations.

4. Leaders facilitate citizen participation.

The respect for our democratic ideals should allow public managers to come along side citizens and mentor them to assist them to accomplish their desired goals, understand processes and sponsor civic education opportunities. Local officials need to recognize that citizens voting in their first elections, attending their first public meetings, organizing groups to practice legal civil disobedience and those drawn into illegal civic disturbances in city streets are all practicing forms of civic engagement, often outside our control as public leaders. Another civic engagement “program” is not the ultimate outcome; truly committed citizens confidently involved in local governance and co-producing civic health should be our goal. Inclusive engagement of citizens will provide a welcomed accessibility and voice for the new participants, the disenfranchised or those alienated from their community or government.

5. Leaders promote community capacity building.  

Whether due to divisive violence or acrimonious rhetoric, leaders should be dedicated to equipping citizens and assisting community participants channel energy into effective and positive civic responses.  These channels may be through more convenient voter registration, civic oriented social media platforms, intentional community conversations or facilitating peaceful civil demonstrations. The level of connectedness within a community is perhaps the best assurance of resiliency. This community capacity building through civic education and empowerment can reestablish trust, reconcile community participants and broaden the number of citizens participating effectively to impact local government policies and programs.

6. Transformational leaders empower citizens.

Any owner’s manual is written to assist people to enjoy and protect their cherished possessions. What more important possession do we share than our local communities and our representative democracy? Local government public administrators would do well to reflect frequently upon our core professional and democratic values. In light of changing technology, policies and practices regarding citizen access, transparency and engagement must also be updated. Public employees must not be the source of frustration in a democratic process but rather be the stewards of the democratic ideals our profession was founded. Our expertise when shared as a citizen with other citizens enhances democracy.

7. Leaders recognize civic renewal can arise from community disruption.

Periods of disruptive politics occur in democracies. The civic empowerment and hope highlighted in Graham and Hand’s America, The Owner’s Manual may be just the prescription our ailing civic health diagnosis demands. Just as the case of technology, there are opportunities for positive change in our institutions and our performance in times of disruption and civil unrest. Leaders can reaffirm community and democratic values. Hopefully this current period of civic disruption can produce a period of civic renewal and a more meaningful participation for citizens in the civic community institutions we cherish. 

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