There are two things that separate most of us from great athletes. The first is a God-given talent for throwing a baseball at 90 miles an hour, running 40 yards in under 4.5 seconds or sinking putt after putt from 10 feet away. The second is the ability to block out all distractions and concentrate. Tennis great Serena Williams once explained it this way: “If you can keep playing tennis when somebody is shooting a gun down the street, that’s concentration.”
And it’s not just athletes who benefit from the ability to focus. Scientists, novelists, musicians, jewelers, mathematicians and pastry chefs all need to concentrate on one thing at a time if they want to be successful. But here’s one group that doesn’t: community leaders.
In fact, I would argue just the opposite: It is when mayors, chamber executives, non-profit leaders and philanthropists focus too much on a single problem (or, worse, a single answer) that things go wrong. They trade one of a community leader’s most critical skills—the ability to see things in the periphery—for tunnel vision. And it often ends in wasted energy—or outright disaster.
When I think of the single-minded leader—the one who’s convinced that all our problems would be solved if only our city had a major-league baseball team, a downtown shopping mall, a bigger airport or lower property taxes—I think of Sea Scouts. It comes from a wise little book written in 1993 by Jack McCall, who spent years as a community development official in the Midwest. In “The Small Town Survival Guide,” McCall writes about a man who grew up in coastal California, where he had joined a branch of the Boy Scouts called the Sea Scouts and found the discipline he lacked. McCall continues:
As an adult he moved to Kansas, a state with few lakes and little opportunity for people to experience boating. Nevertheless, he brought his love for Sea Scouting with him. Since joining the troop had been the solution to his problems, he was quick to suggest that any problem in landlocked Kansas could be solved by a good troop of Sea Scouts. Whatever the problem, whether it was juvenile delinquency, teen pregnancy or reckless driving, the answer was: Sea Scouts.
Funny story, but McCall goes on to make a point that’s critical for community leaders:
There are very few simple problems in this world. Most of them are clusters of problems that have difficult-to-understand relationships, and consequently do not lend themselves to easy, single answers. Instead, they require a number of small answers, sometimes over a long period of time. Fifty 2 percent solutions are better than a single 100 percent solution.
I’ve found this to be true. Turning around a community requires making progress on a number of issues, not just one or two at a time. If leaders are too focused, they neglect things that will undermine their efforts at some point. It’s like a company that concentrates so intently on cutting costs and boosting profits that it loses its best customers, runs off employees and overlooks new markets. Profits might rise for a while, but they won’t last because you can’t have a sustainable company without the other elements.
So how can you develop your peripheral vision, the ability to see all the areas that cities must make progress in? The best way to start, I think, is by making a list of the things communities must do right in order to thrive. Ask this question: If a family had many choices in where to live, why would it choose one place over another?
When you make the list, you may find you have 20 or more items —they may range from very general, like the sense that the community has a promising future, to very specific, like a good parks and recreation program. But we have a hard time remembering 20 things, so you need to group these attributes. So think deeply: Why does someone want a to live in a community with a promising future or a lively downtown? The answer: Because it satisfies some basic human need.
If you think about it enough, you may come up with four to six basic needs that communities must meet in order to be successful —and remembering six things is a lot easier than 20. (Don’t worry. You haven’t thrown away the 20 things, you’ve just grouped them in ways that will help you see the connections among them.)
This should be your work, but I’ll offer a starting list: four basic needs I think successful communities satisfy. You may disagree with my groups or how I name them, and you will probably think of many more attributes than the ones I’ve listed. That’s great. This is a thinking exercise, and the more you think about it, the greater its benefit.
One important note: These are not things that should be done solely by government. As I’ve written elsewhere, governments don’t “own” community problems today, they “share” them. So feel free to think of things others should do, from nonprofits and businesses to schools, churches and neighborhood associations.
The value of the exercise is that it deepens your ability to see issues in context and sharpens your peripheral vision. You won’t be as likely to neglect one thing while doing another. And you won’t forget, as Jack McCall says, that far more progress is made by 50 small solutions than a single big one.
The need for security
- Safe neighborhoods and the freedom to explore (“I can go anywhere in this city”)
- Faith that crime will be punished and justice done
- A safe and nurturing environment for children
- Consideration for the elderly and their needs
The need for opportunity
- Economic development and community progress
- Schools that help children become their best
- Opportunities for personal expression and growth (arts programs, adult education, etc.)
- A sense of local control and responsibility (“We control our destiny as a community”)
The need for connection
- A welcoming community
- Community events that appeal to almost everyone
- Pride of place (an attractive community)
- Many opportunities for community involvement
The need for fairness
- Fair decision making and social justice (“Even the quiet citizens are heard here”)
- Faith in our government, leaders and institutions
- Belief that others (government, nonprofits, businesses, citizens, etc.) are doing their part for the community