Amateur Leaders May Be Best

Amateur Leaders May Be Best

Reflections on the virtues of municipal as opposed to national politicians

One of the wonderful things about municipal government is that its key decision makers are, if you’ll pardon my saying so, amateurs.

Please don’t be insulted.

There is a purity to amateur sports, even though it often is marred by all kinds of quasi-professional arrangements. The Olympics, for all that many of our best athletes really are professionals in every sense, still maintains the flavor of a gathering of women and men who simply love the game (whatever game they play) and the thrill of putting one’s best up against the best others have to offer. There continues to be a remarkable spirit of camaraderie that transcends nationality and trumps even the irritating efforts of the major news media to treat the Olympics like an international political campaign, complete with scandal-mongering and efforts to turn sporting competition into personal grudge matches.

I like professional sports, too. But, with the exception of the Tampa Bay Rays (a team that plays like amateurs . . . often in the best sense of that word), one is compelled to consider questions of merit and performance against the dollars and cents of the business, even when one simply wants to watch a game. Because that “game” is a business, and everyone in it a professional . . . in the money sense of the word.

So give me kids (or adults) on a soccer field or ball diamond or volleyball court who simply come out for love of the sport and the desire to see what they can achieve. I’ll take that over professional sports any day.

It is from that perspective that I consider the “amateur” nature of municipal elected officials to be “wonderful.”
Of course, even at the municipal level, we have career politicians. Some of them manage to make it, not only a lifelong avocation, but more of a business proposition as well. Some do this legitimately; some don’t.

But most run and serve because they love of their community. They run and serve out of a desire to test themselves against its challenges, and to see what they can achieve for the good.

Once they (we, because this was my experience too) are elected, they suddenly discover how easy it was to talk about the good things that ought to be done, and how much more complicated it is to do them. As a candidate, we are the only one who matters.If we want to see the city plant more trees, or create more flexibility in the development codes, or partner with the school district, then . . . well, that’s what we want, and that’s what people want to know. It is enough to be the candidate who wants to do what they also want done.

But once in office, wanting something and making it reality reveal themselves to be radically different things. The will of one does not make for action; the will of a majority (and potentially of a mayor independent of and in addition to that majority) is required. And surprising as it sometimes is to us, the fact that we think something is a good idea isn’t quite enough to win them over.

That discovery leads to frustration. Frustration sometimes leads to angry outbursts, or to silent suspicions that we are being thwarted by dark forces aligned against the good we seek to do.

Sometimes we’re right to be angry and suspicious. Sometimes not.

But the best municipal officials I have observed move past that stage. They figure out that if they are going to achieve any of the good things they spoke of, they have to find ways to work with others. They also come to realize that, whether the thing to be done is really what they want done or not, something must be done. The street lights must be repaired, the potholes filled. First responders need their pay, and offices can’t go dark, denying citizens access to the services they’ve come to expect and indeed have paid for with their taxes.

They also learn that the great aspirations are great things, but good work typically gets done in increments.

Most importantly, they come to accept that there are a number of opinions that matter, not just theirs, or their faction’s. Even if their opinion is objectively superior to that of their colleagues, the colleagues (and the voices of various interests) still must be acknowledged and, more often than not, accommodated.

Meanwhile, the traffic lights still need to go through their cycles, and the trash must be picked up.

If only the “professionals” in Washington grasped all of this. If only they had experienced (as, sadly, most of them have not) the necessity of going against a neighborhood one night and sitting with them at t-ball the next, of seeing your harshest critic condemn you at the meeting in the morning, and working the food line at the picnic that afternoon . . . where, because we are all part of the community, he handed you a plate and asked whether you wanted a burger or a hot dog.

If only our “professionals” in Washington had learned the community lessons of the “amateurs” who lead our cities.

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