The early decades of the Interstate Highway System saw the expenditure of billions of dollars, the laying of a lot of pavement, and a general disregard for any other considerations than cost, safety, and efficiency of project completion.
Neighborhoods were bulldozed or sliced up like bread. Local concerns about traffic congestion were ignored. Environmental impacts were deemed irrelevant.
All of this happened, not because the leaders of state highway departments were evil, but because they had, or thought they had, unbridled authority to get the Interstate built.
But in the end, they lost that authority. With time, the objections of mayors and councilmembers, of civil rights groups, environmental organizations and neighborhood activists were heard. The result? Washington constrained state authority and shared it with local planning boards comprised of local elected officials. That authority was also compelled to submit not simply to public comment, but to actual public engagement on the issues these massive projects raised.
Just recently, this familiar dynamic is playing out in Tampa Bay, where the TBX Interstate plan stirred up a hornet’s nest of local opposition.
For a time, it seemed that all the public outcry would be ignored. The plan would go forward, said authorities from the Florida Department of Transportation.
Then, rather suddenly, things changed. A voice of accommodation and openness from FDOT emerged. A new period of dialog appears to be dawning.
Nothing truly changed in terms of FDOT’s authority. Rather, the real limits of that authority have become much more apparent.
Some of those limits are matters of federal law and policy. But beyond these formal legal constraints are the larger political realities that are as important, if not at times more important, than formal authority.
I relate this story not to criticize FDOT, but to make a point about public leadership.
In positions of considerable authority, one can imagine that we have the independent capacity to do most anything in our sphere, and perhaps a bit beyond. But formal authority is not the same as capacity.
If a leader is focused on his or her capacity to achieve certain results, that leader must look beyond formal authority. That leader must look to the influence of others that could be harnessed to the cause, not by the exercise of authority, but by other means. Partnerships with elected officials, business leaders, interest groups, activist organizations, or even individual citizens can considerably expand a public leader’s capacity to achieve results.
Conversely, ignoring these other voices is likely, over time, to lead to strong opposition. One’s authority will matter less and less in the face of shrinking capacity born of a lack of public support.
For the public leader, formal authority cannot be understood as absolute. The ultimate authority, the source of our real capacity to accomplish anything, is the public. We ignore them at our peril.