TRANSFORMATIONAL MUNICIPAL LEADERSHIP

Why some small & medium sized communities are successful with economic reinvention and others become ghost towns!

Richard G. Longworth in his book “Caught in the Middle – America’s Heartland in the Age of Globalization”,  lays the historic groundwork explaining why some communities become ghost towns – the failure to adjust to change…being transportation, communications or market force changes that reshape the local economy. Today similar changes such as a lack of direct interstate roadway or high-speed internet connectivity are reshaping future sustainability of many smaller communities, especially those not having connection to a metropolitan area. There is ample evidence that metropolitan regions are the collectors of population growth, increased household wealth, creative workforce talent and ultimately future prosperity. As the concentration of growth trends continue to accumulate in metropolitan areas, smaller communities, especially those lacking connectivity to metropolitan areas, will face economic sustainability challenges. While a large number of smaller communities will inevitability be unable, or unwilling, to make necessary political and civic changes leading to prosperity, others will “take-on” challenges to reinvent themselves for the future. Study of successful smaller communities, over the past 40-years has led me to identify ten key ingredients, which will separate ghost towns from successful small towns of the future:

 1. Transformational LeadershipDilbert leadership

Every successful community has one – they are “action figures” persons with the personality and leadership “karma” drawing together differing, and at times conflicting, pathways into a single direction – “they’re the lead dog in the sled team and pilot the direction for others to follow along.”

Successfully communities in the future will all have a leader, a single person who collects and draws together ideas, combines individualized personal commitments, plots-out a uniform action strategy and sets-in-place the deployment process to implement change.

 2. Long-term Consensus Strategy

In today real world agreement doesn’t exist anymore comments Aaron Anthony, Bridgman MI, City Manager, “it’s a generally held conclusion that 100% agreement is a figment of imagination and that we can get everyone on the same page when forming community strategy”. But successful community development is founded on the premise that we can set aside our differences and reach agreement upon certain principles that result in a strategy that all parties accept and will implement.

Successfully communities in the future will be guided by a generally recognized, and community accepted, long-term consensus strategy that in general terms, tells where the community wants to be in the future – a compass point showing direction rather than specific GPS instructions for the journey.

 3. Dedicated “Single-Focus” Management

Unlike 40-years back where community leaders had a limited number of issues to handle, today’s municipal community development function is far more complex, governed by a greater number of laws and regulations, influenced by a larger number special interest groups and susceptible to increased legal intervention. Constantine MI, City Manager, Mark Honeysett sums it up quickly, it’s easy to get to many things on the plate at the same time and get nothing accomplished.  The result is more time, more money and more complexity in carrying-out both the civic and governmental community development function”.

Successfully communities in the future will those communities who recognize and realize that a community cannot address every issue at the same time and direct both human and financial resources to a prioritized list of needed accomplishments.

 4. Long-term Funding Mechanisms

Transformation according to Bridgman MI, Manager, Aaron Anthony, “is not an “annual pay-as-you-go proposition, but a multi-year commitment of interconnected projects that required several years of funding to achieve best results.   Communities that recognize implementation does not comply with election cycles or annual budget cycles have a better chance for success”.  Modern municipal project management requires identification of all potential funding sources with their probability of funding success as part of the project planning process to help communities better define the overall project scope and anticipate costs in an effort to achieve greater implementation success.

Successfully communities in the future will recognize the value of multi-year project budgeting opposed to annually deciding what can spent and how to use the annual community budget.

 5. Leverage Funding Opportunities

Change is costly with most major “transformational” projects exceeding the annual tax revenue of most communities.  This results in reliance upon other funding sources. Federal and state grants are always viewed as the first supplemental source, but tax increases, tax increment financing, borrowings and even private donations all have place in leveraged funding opportunities.

Successful communities in the future will rely on realistic expectations of  grant and other funding sources and consider the ability to complete projects using only local funds.

 6. Experienced Technical Guidance

Local elected officials “don’t have to be smart – only popular enough to get elected” was told to me many years ago Cass County, MI Commissioner Johnnie Rodebush, “the best thing we can do is hire smart guys, like you, to help guide us in making things work.” It is uncommon occurrence that once elected, the elected official has comprehensive knowledge of the vast number of governmental programs available leading to  reliance upon technical help and services to assist in successful project implementation.

Today and even more in the future, successful communities will realize navigating the complex, ever-changing, municipal world, requires good advice and technical assistance from qualified and experienced help for success.

 7. Appetite for Civic & Political Risk

Supporting civic and governmental change implies taking risks – risk of criticism, risk of losing an election and possibly loss of community status and position in social and civic organizations.

Successful communities in the future will identify risk taking as an accepted part of a successful transformation process and celebrate rather than shy away from possible adverse effects of implementing change.

  8. Acceptably for System Changes Needed for Success

Government structure, especially in some Midwest states, was born in the late 1800’s and remains in place today.  However, the reliance on single government solution, guided by independent separatist elected bodies at times hinders the ability to solve problems which span multiple government jurisdictions such as potable water supply and sewerage collection/treatment, storm water management and transportation.

Successfully communities in the future will have relinquished some of today’s commonly held duties in favor of multi-jurisdictional delivery systems that may offer cost savings, provide superior services and more efficient management oversight.

 9. Unrelentless Pursuit of Success

Author Tom Peters, in his 1980’s book “In Search for Excellence” chronicled the theory of successful companies based on a total commitment and passion for excellence.  So too with community development, strategy a long-term passion for success always trumps stop-and-start attempts.

Successful communities in the future will not only subscribe to a passion for success but leverage this passion in pursuit of continual success.

  10. Civic Acceptance of Need for Success

Bob Gets, Village of Baroda MI, President, credits Baroda’s nationally recognized economic reinvention success to the community acceptance that “if we didn’t make a change we would become another Michigan ghost town” upon realization, in 2004,  that the loss of  over 10 tool & die shops with over 220 employees would never return. Most communities need a life-or-death realization to create the wanna-factor and wake-up a passive community mind-set that changes must happen.

Successfully communities in the future will have a civic “wanna-factor” for a successful future and economic sustainability – a spirit that is communicated and is easily recognizable outside of the community.

FINAL THOUGHTS

 Successful smaller communities need transformational leadership for success.

As Longworth states “like it or not, it’s the cities that are the economic engines of the 21st Century.  The small towns may be the spiritual anchors of the Midwest, but they no longer serve as the economic engine of the future.  Only those smaller communities that have the courage and political ability to reinvent themselves and integrate themselves in the new economy will prevent the ghost town from becoming reality”.

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One Response to “TRANSFORMATIONAL MUNICIPAL LEADERSHIP”

  1. Chris Godlewski Says:

    Chuck,
    Again, great article. In my humble opinion point number 1 and 9 seem to be the most critical elements. To sum it up that person would be a “no guts no glory” type accompanied with a long term vision and passion. Richard Longworth makes a clear distinction that a community is gong have to be a success or failure. There won’t be any room for the communities maintaining the status quo. Great insight. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

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