Maybe the most dispiriting things a reformer faces, when sheâ€™s trying to fix a major community problemâ€“or maybe turn around an entire cityâ€“are the twin evils of cynicism and finger pointing. And if you prefer your evils in threes, add another: apathy.
In my experience, every city has some version of these problems: big cities and small towns, places in long decline and even those on the rise. And they come from people in low places and high. Iâ€™ve known mayors who were hard-bitten cynics, chamber of commerce executives who blamed everyone else for what went wrong, and newspaper editorialists who described every new idea as the Titanic weighing anchor.
So what do you do when youâ€™re faced with such a wall of civic doubt and negativism? Iâ€™ll get to the things you should do shortly, but letâ€™s begin with the things you shouldnâ€™t:
- Donâ€™t become part of the problem. Specifically, donâ€™t point fingers at others, donâ€™t blame the community for things that go wrong, and donâ€™t give up.
- And donâ€™t do the opposite, which is to overpromise. Leaders who promise too much (â€œwe can turn this around in 90 daysâ€) end up digging the cynicism hole even deeper when they fail. If you need a slogan, try this one: â€œLetâ€™s do what we can.â€
And what are the things you can do? Start with attitude. You can be positive without being a Pollyanna. The secret is to be quietly confident. Jack McColl, who worked for many years in rural development in the Midwest, wrote a wise little book 20 years ago called â€œThe Small Town Survival Guide.â€ In it, he described a group that he called the â€œcoffee-break cynicism societyâ€ whose delight, he said, was in describing every civic improvement as certain failure. His advice: â€œCultivate your ability to smile and say, â€˜Letâ€™s try.â€™ â€
But ultimately the only thing that overcomes widespread cynicism is success. Doing something. Succeeding. Then doing something else, and succeeding there too.
Which begs the question: Where do you start? Iâ€™ll give you the advice Iâ€™ve heard from two highly successful mayors. One was Bill Frederick, the three-term mayor of Orlando in the 1980s. Frederickâ€™s advice was to pick the biggest, most visible thing that you knew with certainty you could accomplish, then bring every resource to bear on accomplishing it. It worked for Frederick, and it worked a decade later for Frank Martin, the late mayor of Columbus, Georgia, who worked mightily to change attitudes in his city. Martin used what he called his â€œman on the moonâ€ strategy to complete a big civic project that had eluded one mayor after another, the building of a civic center in downtown Columbus. (Again: big, visible, doable, done.)
But hereâ€™s the key: One data point is not a trend, and a single success will not change a communityâ€™s cynicism. For that, you need repeated successes. Martin followed the civic center by building a stunning 22-mile river walk, a new set of recreational athletic fields downtown, and then, improbably enough, by staging in Columbus one of the events of the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, the womenâ€™s softball competition. (If you want the full story of what Martin did and how it laid the groundwork for Columbusâ€™ eventual revival, you can read about it in my book, â€œThe Great Project.â€)
Most civic leaders arenâ€™t mayors and arenâ€™t called upon to turn around an entire city. But the same principles apply if you are trying to improve a neighborhood, change a lethargic government agency, resurrect a nonprofit, or deal with a crime problem. Be quietly confident and donâ€™t overpromise. Focus on one big, visible project and move heaven and earth to get it done. (If it can be completed in ways that exceed expectationsâ€“on time, under budget, and with unexpected qualityâ€“all the better.) Then refocus and repeat. And then repeat again.
Keep in mind that youâ€™ll always have rock-throwers, and some will always deny progress. But the more you accomplish, the less others will pay attention to them, and the quieter and quieter the coffee-break cynicism society will become.
This is part of a series of brief postings called Rules for Reformers. For an introduction to the series, please click here.