I’m traveling a lot this month, working with my colleague Ken Small on a municipal revenue summit and supporting the work of Sachs Media Group for their Crisis Communication workshop. The travel can be tiring at times, but it also creates opportunities.
Travel is full of chance encounters between strangers, encounters in which we have an opportunity to make each other’s day a little brighter . . . or, I suppose, to make each other miserable.
It’s all in the attitude, isn’t it?
Being an elected official in local government provides similar opportunities. In Florida and many other states, the law establishes a right for members of the public to be heard, at least on items on the agenda. Many councils go a step further and ensure that the public can be heard on other matters of concern to them as well. That’s generally not something one can do in the state capital or in D.C.
It would seem that some of our residents come to make comment with the intent to make our lives miserable. They need someplace to vent their anger, and council meetings seem to be attractive venues for such venting. Others come because they are frightened, or hurting, or struggling, and our meetings provide a peculiarly “safe” space to share their pain.
I often have suggested that a city council’s public comment period is really a method of providing therapy. It’s a joke, of course . . . but only in part. In part, it is exactly what we do . . . and it may be a vital community function.
Whether the therapy is constructive or not depends on our response. We must show the speaker respect. We must listen to what they are saying and, perhaps even more, to what may be the underlying issue about which they are less articulate. For practical reasons, perhaps we shouldn’t respond directly to each person after they’ve vented, but we should be attentive to those cases where some kind of response is warranted.
None of this is easy . . . especially when the resident has just accused us of being on the take, of being in league with shadowy forces bent on destroying their quality of life, and, just for added color, of being the spawn of the Devil.
Recent events on the national stage, though less intimate in character, have illustrated both the challenge of dealing with criticism and the opportunity to choose how we will respond. The criticism came from Pope Francis, who made some pointed remarks about immigration, about walls versus bridges, and about being a Christian.
Donald Trump, about whom the Pope was speaking when he made these comments, struck back hard with a three-paragraph statement that doubled down on his earlier criticism of the Pope, asserting that the Pope was a “pawn” in the hands of Mexican politicians.
Former Governor Jeb Bush, Senator Marco Rubio and Governor John Kasich all handled the Pope’s comments with more nuance, even though their proposals with regard to controlling illegal immigration also fail to meet the standards for which the Pope has argued. Each expressed respect for the Pope as they also forcefully affirmed their right to pursue policies that they felt made sense for the U.S. with regard to illegal immigration.
Perhaps it was easier for them to make space both for the Pope’s perspective and their own; the comment wasn’t as personally directed at them.
On the other hand, one can be certain that a public leader (whether president or governor or senator or mayor or councilmember) will have hostile comments directed at them, and quite personally. One measure of the leader is how she or he responds.
I’ve known public leaders who saw themselves as representatives of only those who agreed with them. Challenge their perspective, and they attacked.
I’ve also known public leaders who will give their critics their due (and sometimes more) in an effort to ensure that they never lose sight of their duty to serve the public, not just their fan base.
It’s all about attitude, isn’t it?
The attitude of a leader determines much about how we are led. And we, as leaders, get to choose what attitude we will bring to each encounter.