Mid-August is one of my favorite times of year. Yes, my eldest son’s birthday falls in mid-August, but with as many kids (and grandkids) as I have, if I made every birthday a “favorite time,” nearly every month would be among my favorites. So it’s not that.
It’s the Annual Conference of the Florida League of Cities.
The spirit of the gathering, of the League team that puts it on and, especially, the membership that participates, is infectious. The laughter is richer, the courtesies sincerer, and the desire to learn and to serve pervasive.
So as I walked into the Regency Ballroom for my presentation Friday morning, I was hoping to teach, but also expecting to learn.
I was not disappointed.
We talked about the nature of our partisan and our nonpartisan political systems. We explored the why and how of the emergence of each, and their implications for our governments and our people.
Both to gauge the thoughts of my audience and to keep them engaged (at 8 a.m., that’s really important), I polled them on a number of questions related to our discussion. Sometimes their response options were limited to specific answers. Sometimes, I let them speak their minds.
When I asked, what is the job of a political leader, I gave them free rein to post their ideas. I captured them in the word cloud that appears above.
What leaps off the page to you?
For me, it was the frequent recurrence of the words “represent” and “listen.”
To represent another person (to do it well, at least), one must know that person. One must spend time with them, observe them and, especially, listen to them. So the two words are very closely linked.
We often think of leadership as directive. Leaders identify the goal, spell out the strategy, and assign tasks to the members of the team. The rest of us just follow instructions.
But these municipal leaders, even on just one cup of coffee, were quick to point toward a different fundamental dynamic of political leadership.
It isn’t primarily about directing (even though that seems synonymous with “leading”). It’s about listening to those one hopes to lead so that one can know what the goal should be and so that one can develop an appropriate strategy to achieve it. It’s about hearing the disparate voices of the people of a city and distilling from those voices their essential concerns and hopes.
Armed with such insight, a leader can lead, because the leader will know where to go, and the people, who want to go there too, will follow.
Listening and representing isn’t about pandering; that’s a different beast altogether. One panders when one throws an audience the baby food of political postures, offering promises thin on substance, to which the “leader” is only committed (if at all) for the sake of political expediency. Some are fooled, but a majority of active citizens have political taste buds that have matured enough to know the difference between puree and prime rib.
What I know my audience was talking about was something much deeper and more respectful than pandering. It was getting to the real meat of people’s lives and aspirations . . . and it was expressed with a sincere desire to get to that substance so that they could act on what they had learned.
That’s leadership. It’s what the best of those who wear the title of political leader do.
A lot of the best were in that ballroom with me this morning. And it made me proud to be a city guy.