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Want to Be a Good Leader? Rely On a Little Help From Your Friends.

Communities can’t address the big issues without collaboration.

colla boration
(Shutterstock)
To make a difference on big community challenges like homelessness, drug addiction and economic development, disparate agencies and programs in government, business and the nonprofit sector have to work in concert with each other. If these individual entities do not work across sector and governmental lines -- that is, if they do not form a system -- then their collective impact will be greatly diminished.

This problem and its potential consequences are explored by Ben Hecht, president and CEO of Living Cities, in his recent book Reclaiming the American Dream: Proven Solutions for Creating Economic Opportunity for All. Hecht quotes Cincinnati’s coroner, who articulates the issue in a powerful way: “We are program rich and system poor … and until we become system rich, we will not only continue to see low college graduation rates, but we will also keep seeing youth who have lost their lives on my tables.” How to become “system rich,” by bringing disparate entities together across sectors to focus on a collective goal, is one of the most profound challenges facing communities.

It seems to me that there are two things that could help both public officials and civic leaders move toward coherent systems capable of creating the community conditions they want. The first is an organizing principle employing the “loose-tight” concept as explained by Tom Peters and Robert Waterman in their 1982 management classic In Search of Excellence. That is, individual units operate autonomously but with a common goal and tight accountability for reporting progress toward it.

Second, there has to be a clear understanding of roles and capacities. Government officials have legitimacy and convening power but little or no discretionary money. Corporate and philanthropic leaders have financial resources and connections to powerful people but less legitimacy. I could have used a better understanding of roles and capacities in my first campaign for mayor of Kansas City, Mo. I promised that if elected I would convene a community gathering to set a vision for the city’s troubled schools. That resonated with the voters, but to bring together a large, demographically representative sample of the city’s population for a daylong meeting required money for food, transportation, child care, professional facilitators, language translators and more. Finding the money in the city budget proved impossible, and the community conversation never happened.

But for a community seeking to become system rich, these kinds of conversations must take place. When a common vision does not exist, the political leadership has the responsibility to start the dialogue that will bring it about. Gaining agreement on outcomes -- the community conditions we would like to see, such as every child reading at grade level -- is the easiest part of the process. Setting priorities is a bit harder, and agreeing on methods of achieving those outcomes is the hardest of all. As Hecht makes clear, the communities that are having the most success at working through this process are those that have met the challenge posed by that coroner in Cincinnati.

Mark Funkhouser, a former publisher of Governing and former mayor of Kansas City, is president of Funkhouse & Associates, an independent consulting firm. He can be reached at mark@mayorfunk.com.
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