There’s a children’s song about thoughtful choices. Verses begin, “Be careful, little eyes, what you see,” “Be careful, little ears, what you hear,” and so on.
The last verse begins “Be careful, little mouth, what you say.”
This was my “earworm” as I attended today’s Center for Municipal Research and Innovation Symposium: Ready and Resilient.
We talked about heavy rains and overwhelmed storm water systems, king tides and sea walls, and existing and planned development in precisely the places most likely to be inundated by water.
Speakers described well-documented historical changes, difficult recent events and disturbing projections. They spoke of ways to reimagine land use planning and reevaluate infrastructure investments. They even spoke of places it is likely our citizens will no longer be able to live before this century is out.
So why was I remembering, “Be careful, little mouths, what you say”?
Because even as I write this, I am conscious of the words that trigger reactions and shut down conversation. “Flooding,” sure; we’ve all experienced or at least seen images of flooding. “Extreme weather,” okay. We’ve watched Houston experience three 100-year weather events in the last three years. We’ve just lived through an intense hurricane season that defied expectations and experience. We’re watching another raging wildfire char California’s landscape.
“Sea level rise,” probably okay for most of us. It’s hard to argue with the historical evidence along much of Florida’s coast.
But “climate change”?
Those are fighting words.
Yet the lived experience across our state and our nation isn’t theoretical. Our communities are being challenged by natural occurrences and the human choices that amplify them. Their impacts, in lives disrupted, altered and lost, cannot be ignored.
Leaders often must act on imperfect and incomplete information, using best judgment and, when it comes to lives and livelihoods, an extra measure of cautious protection.
We’ve done this before in Florida, developing some of the finest emergency response systems in the world. We have done this because of our experience with discrete disasters. We’ve done it, not because we could say with certainty when a disaster would happen again, but because we were unwilling to expose our citizens to that risk ever again without having done our best to mitigate it. We didn’t need faith in science; we had faith in our own experience.
And, increasingly, our own experience tells us Florida is at risk.
Responding effectively will require good information and the courage to confront disturbing facts. It also invites us to embrace the core value of protection of our people, not only their lives but their livelihoods, that has lain at the heart of the reason for cities from the beginning. It challenges us to find ways, not to stampede our citizens into frantic action blinded by fear, but to secure their support for careful, systemic, often difficult steps to be taken in anticipation, not of a discrete event, but of a changed environment.
This is what municipal leaders have done for centuries . . . millenia, actually. Today’s challenge is that we must invite, persuade and motivate a population grown skeptical of everything and everyone.
Every word we speak matters. Every word can make a difference for our cities.
So be careful, city leaders, what we say . . . but speak we must.
Whether it’s from discerning this implicit power dynamic or a council meeting with your peers, there are leadership lessons to be learned wherever we look. Join Holly McPhail and me online for our On Demand webinar, Discovering Leadership, as we explore some of the inspirations behind the leadership lessons captured in my new book, More than Self. Click here to to access.