Greensburg Daily News, Greensburg, IN

March 13, 2013

Laboratories of leadership

Nathan Harter
Greensburg Daily News

Greensburg — I have said it before, and I’ll say it again: The best laboratories for leadership in the United States today are local government.

Local government has to meet a budget. You see the people you are leading every day. And you have to live with the consequences of your own decisions.

Leading a city is no less complex than leading other large organizations. In many ways, it is more complex. You still confront many of the same issues that other leaders face. Nevertheless, your hands are often tied – by laws, by voters, by economic conditions, by the media. It takes real creativity to do the job.

The strange thing is that if you do something creative in local government, you have really accomplished something precisely because you are so constrained. It takes a heap of leadership to make a difference in that context. And not everyone is cut out for the job. Everyone can participate in leadership, in my opinion, but not everyone is suited to lead in that particular context.

But let’s take a giant step back. Let’s stop looking at the leader as though he or she is a solitary figure, rising up out of the mud. Instead, let’s look at the network of leaders who work together to make local government work: the mayor, the councilman, the department head, the chief, and so forth.

Then, add to the official network of leaders the expanded informal network. Think about the editor, the pastor, the bank president, the volunteer, the party chair, the wealthy donor, and so forth. Distributed leadership is what it’s all about. Why does there have to be just the one leader?

I see students every day who have ambition and smarts, but they don’t know exactly what to do with themselves. They are 19-years-old, after all. Part of my mission is to open the possibility of leadership, but not just becoming the chief executive officer. Participate in leadership, yes; bring your good minds and good hearts to the problems where you live.

Believe me, leadership is more powerful when people with good hearts and good minds contribute, rather than leaving it all up to the elected official. Speak up. Volunteer. Organize your neighborhood. Go to meetings. Donate. I contend that any local leader would flourish when more people do these things.

But don’t just try to make his or her life easier; I’m not saying that. Citizens have to hold leaders to account as well — tactfully, I hope — but faithfully. That brings the system around full circle. So in that sense, we hold each other accountable, every day. And why is that? Because we share responsibility for this place we call home.

It seems so simple. But then consider what that kind of community spirit would do on a state or national level, instead of the theatrics we presently witness. Like I say, the real action is at the local level. And that means it starts with the people on your street.