The Year(s) of Living Dangerously

New York City, 2017

Working in local government can be inspiring and exhilarating, and occasionally tedious and frustrating. But dangerous? I had not thought to characterize our work that way until I read the thought-provoking book Leadership on the Line by Marty Linksy and Ron Heifetz (L&H). Their thinking is that simply being a leader is to live dangerously.

Leadership is dangerous when we ask people to confront loss.

People naturally resist loss. When we as managers treat all challenges through a technical lens, we neglect the hearts and minds of those we are leading. Loss also applies to our constituents and electeds. When seeking to make a major shift in policy or practice, we need to acknowledge their loss (honestly, even it we think it is immaterial). As L&H note, “Asking them to change practically invites them to get rid of you.” That’s dangerous.

In Needham, in the “before times,” our office would arrange for police officers to deliver hard copy agenda packets to elected officials twice per month. This was a huge effort, and hardly environmentally friendly. Our staff repeatedly suggested moving to a digital platform, and met with strong resistance. Evidently, the regular interaction with police officers at their doors was a source of great connection for our officials, and we had been treating an adaptive change as a technical one. (One benefit of the pandemic, of course, is that we no longer deliver packets.)

Leadership is dangerous when we don’t watch closely.

L&H use a balcony metaphor, suggesting that leaders need to climb up to the balcony – taking themselves out of the action in their minds, even for a moment. Standing in the balcony allows us to see others – and ourselves – with greater clarity.

View from the balcony, Needham Town Hall, 2023

L&H advise us as leaders to carefully read authority figures for clues. This is especially true in local government. Elected officials, stakeholders, and even city and town managers “sit in an ecosystem and are sensitive to disturbances…They often continue to pay lip service to those in the trenches who are tackling tough issues – long after they have begun to succumb to pressure.” Our supporters are behind us, in other words, until they are not.

Many years ago, I worked with an elected official and a group of stakeholders on a year-long study and report. I presented the recommendations to the board, who – to put it kindly – were not supportive. The member who had worked on the project and supported the recommendations remained quiet. I had stopped watching the elected official and stakeholders carefully, and likely didn’t recognize the loss inherent in the recommendations. I did learn, however, that difficult recommendations should be presented by a team and not just the manager. We need to find a way to create breathing room – to take stock of a project and its associated perceived loss, long before we start to implement it. Climbing up to the balcony forces us to evaluate the participants – and ourselves – and take corrective action if necessary.

Simply being in our leadership roles is dangersous.

People see us in our roles more than they see us as people. This is a reflection of their own needs and worries. We need to be careful not to underestimate the challenge (and danger) of distinguishing our role from ourselves. I was talking to a colleague about a particularly difficult interaction, and she reminded me that in that setting, I was The Town Manager, not VeryKate. She rightly pointed that out if Rocket (the Town’s beloved comfort dog) had been sitting in my seat, he would have been treated the same way that I was. I can’t tell you how helpful this reminder is for me. As L&H note, our management of an “attack,” more than the substance of the accusation, determines our fate. In theory, remembering that we are our role when in a difficult conversation will help us remain calm and unperturbed. In theory. But if you hear me muttering “woof woof” under my breath, now you know why.

Rocket, Needham, MA 2020

So how about you? Is your work dangerous? How do you protect yourself ? Have you ever found yourself standing alone, abandoned quietly by stakeholders you thought were with you? Did you see The Year of Living Dangerously in the theater in the early 1980s? Did you, as I did, own the LP?

Let’s practice, moving on and off the balcony. It’s good for clarity of vision, and getting our step goal.

Bonus: Anyone who has worked in government for a minute will appreciate this gem from the book: “True Believers are not known for their sense of strategic patience.” Um, yes.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s