The 1992 film “Glengarry Glen Ross” is a downbeat, almost claustrophobic film with a stream of profanity. But it’s also a great movie, not least because some of its lines, once heard, can’t be forgotten. Here’s one, delivered by the boss (played by Alec Baldwin) to an office full of cut-throat salesmen: “A-B-C,” he says. “A-Always, B-Be, C-Closing. Always be closing, always be closing.”
Thankfully, communities aren’t much like desperate sales offices, but there’s a similar acronym that civic leaders may want to commit to memory: A-B-B-R. Always be building relationships.
Successful change, I believe, starts with knowing and articulating community needs. But change is fueled by relationships—the people you know or can get to know. Long before beginning a change process, then, you can strengthen your leadership ability simply by building more relationships.
How many relationships and with whom? As many as you can and the more diverse the better. That’s because the best leaders are connectors who put together people, ideas, and resources. And the most valuable connections are the unexpected ones, the ones no one else would have thought of.
Good example: The inspired effort to turn an abandoned elevated rail line in New York into one of America’s most exciting and successful new urban parks, the High Line. The project was started by two determined citizens who looked up and saw something no one else did: a park in the sky. By the time it was opened, the High Line required all three elements coming together: unlikely people, unexpected ideas, and unanticipated resources.
And that suggests another thing about relationships: You never know which ones will be valuable in the future, so being overly strategic is probably a mistake. Knowing only existing leaders, for instance, means you’ll miss the ones on the rise. And knowing what’s important at city hall or the chamber of commerce won’t help in a crisis, when leaders need to learn what people elsewhere are thinking.
Steve Jobs, for one, would have approved of indiscriminate relationship building. In his famous 2005 Stanford University commencement speech, Jobs urged graduates not to limit themselves in their careers or lives because, he said, you never know what will be important in the future. “You can’t connect the dots looking forward,” he warned. “You can only connect them looking backward.”
So while you’re waiting for a cause to lead, meet as many people as you can, from as many parts of the community as possible. Ask what people are thinking about. Keep an eye out for unexpected resources. Or, if you like things simple, A-B-B-R.
Photo by Sharon Mollerus licensed under Creative Commons.