Some years ago, after I made the rather unlikely decision at age 30 to run for the City Council in my hometown, my mother asked me the inevitable question: “Why would you want to be a politician? Everyone will take potshots at you and make your life miserable!”
I responded rather indignantly and with a tone of disappointment, “I wasn’t thinking of myself as a politician, but rather I would hope to be someone thought of as a ‘statesman.’” Later that evening at dinner, she casually mentioned, “I looked up the word ‘statesman’ in the dictionary, and it said that a statesman was a dead politician.”
Despite that less-than-enthusiastic response, I did decide to run, and I ended up being in office for 18 years as the mayor and a council member of Santa Barbara, California.
Regardless of what some might think the job entails, most of the work ends up being about how to manage differences of opinion about mundane issues such as whether the community can agree on the size, bulk and scale of a neighborhood development, or mediating a dispute between fighting factions who all believe that everyone should think as they do.
Most of it is rather dull and requires a fair amount of caffeine to survive. Even so, there are those few memorable events that come along that make it all worthwhile. Some events make the news, such as having an audience with Queen Elizabeth of England, or the time I joined President Ronald Reagan and Premier Mikhail Gorbachev of the Soviet Union for a dinner.
The real points of satisfaction, though, came about when I saw the community come together to solve long-standing problems, or when I saw the spark of excitement in the eyes of children as a new park opened where none had existed before.
If everyone complains about politicians in office, then it is not surprising or rare when Christians stand up and lead. One person said to me, “I wouldn’t do what you do for all the money in the world.” My response then and continuing to this day: “If not a person of faith, then who are you willing to follow?” We need to step up and encourage, train and then support people of courage, wisdom and skills to set the standards for our communities.
Everyone in my church used to wish me well, but at the end of 18 years of office, I could only recall two times that someone came to City Hall to pray with me about where we were going as a community, or to ask God to give me wisdom in making a hard decision. On the other hand, I could recall weekly comments that people made to me on our church deck about what they didn’t like about what the politicians in our community were doing.
I guess it shouldn’t come as a big surprise that most people are civically illiterate when it comes to how local government works. In most high schools, there are courses on the founding of the country and how the federal government system works. Most schools also teach how the states operate in relationship to the federal government, but almost no one teaches how a local community operates. It is just taken for granted that people will know, but in reality, they don’t know.
Here is where the church can make a significant contribution! Who is in a better position to call for a higher standard of accountability, honest conversations, living with gratitude and compassion, and seeking to model healthy communication?
At the end of my time in office, I knew two things to be true: 1) In the words of St. Paul, God “has committed to us the message of reconciliation” (2 Corinthians 5:19), and 2) the genius of our republic was that it was built on a foundation of community dialogue. The New England town hall meeting took place in the church more often than not. One of the greatest gifts we can give today to the communities in which we live is to host or facilitate “dialogues” between people with differences of opinion.
We need to raise up people of integrity who possess the skills to facilitate community conversations, and then give them the support they need to withstand the winds of attack. We need to model the love of others that Jesus modeled for us.
When I stepped down from office, I wrote out some key statements of advice for my successor. It just so happened to be ten recommendations, so I called them my “Ten Commitments To Leadership.” It turned out that they had universal appeal, and the list got reprinted everywhere from the Boston Globe, to a Midwest dairy association and to the cities in the state of Washington. I consider these commitments to be a companion piece to “Robert’s Rules of Order” in running any public meeting.
In my own hometown, we now ask citizens to rate people in office on a 1-10 scale about how they feel each of our leaders are doing. You can be ranked as a Platinum Leader if you get 90 points or higher, a Gold Leader at 80 points, or a Silver Leader at 70 points. If you come in below that number, it is time to step down and take a refresher course.
Here are my “Ten Commitments to Leadership”:
1. A commitment to excellence in personal behavior
2. A commitment to providing inspiration and vision
3. A commitment to safe and transparent conversations
4. A commitment to facilitating community dialogue
5. A commitment to active listening
6. A commitment to exercising wisdom in judgments
7. A commitment to being a wise steward with money and resources
8. A commitment to time management
9. A commitment to honoring others as partners in service
10. A commitment to accountability
Hal Conklin is the president of USA Green Communities and the board chairman of the Free Methodist Church – USA, the Free Methodist Church in Southern California, and the Center for Transformational Leadership. He previously served as the president of the League of California Cities and as vice president of the National League of Cities.0