Pretend you’re the leader

Annie McHale in Oregon, USA, asked about what to do about obstinate leadership in a small town.

Annie and a small group of citizens are working on a better future for their town with some successes and some failures, of course. They keep running up against the handful of people who occupy seats on the majority of the decision-making commissions, boards, councils, etc.

“We’ve attended many public meetings,” Annie said, “with a clearly communicated agenda: to work WITH these entities to bring positive change to our community. In every venue we have been shut down; even the mayor, at a public city council meeting, told us that our request to work with the council on the design of a pending park is ‘inappropriate.’”

Things are starting to get nasty, with backlash brewing from the existing leaders. In a crazy way, that’s good news. Backlash means you’re doing enough to get noticed.

At this point, it would be easy for her group to respond with even nastier tactics; to backlash against their backlash. Or start a “vote them out” campaign. Instead, it’s time to change the trajectory of your community. How about acting like you were the ones in power, the ones who cared about pulling in the public and bringing people together?

For example, let’s take the new park that the council doesn’t want to hear from the group about. OK, what would you do if you were on the council? You’d hold public meetings. So do that. Hold the public meetings, but do not mis-represent them as official. Make sure everyone knows you are unofficial, private citizens talking about the future of the town. Invite the town council members. Talk to the schools. Invite officials, teachers, students. Go door to door and ask people what they think. Hold a contest for kids to design the kind of park they would love. Throughout the process, share everything you learn with everyone publicly. Publish it. Put it online. Mail it to city hall and the council members individually. Post a summary at the coffee shop. Take a report back to the schools.

Do this about everything. Annual budget? Time for more public meetings, door to door, talks with city employees, and all of it. New project? Let’s get everyone in town talking. Yes, it’s a ton of hard work. But it’s the kind of work that makes a community into a healthy community.

Imagine what it would be like if a group of open and interested people were on these councils and boards. What kind of public input would be collected? How would the people be part of the process? Then make that happen and share it all over. Create the kind of town leadership you would wish for, even though you are not actually in the leadership.

The secret is building allies, not enemies. Management guru Tom Peters (who is also a small town guy from Vermont) wrote you a fine short guide on this, called Allies, NOT Enemies. Print copies for everyone in town. 

Want me to come to your town? 
I’m speaking at the AMIBA Go Local, Grow Local conference May 9-11. I’d like to schedule a visit to a small town either right before or right after. If you can make those dates work, I’d love to hear from you.


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