The decorum of leaders 

City Sage

Twenty-five years ago, local artist Don Green addressed a group of wannabe local leaders at a "Citizens Goals" seminar.

"Leaders," he said, "don't have to have followers."

To one whose romantic notions of leadership had been shaped by wartime propaganda movies, it was a revelation. Green seemed to be saying that leaders weren't necessarily battlefield commanders. There was no job description — you could take risks, fail and start over, follow your heart.

Since then, Colorado Springs has had five mayors (Robert Isaac, Leon Young, Mary Lou Makepeace, Lionel Rivera and Steve Bach) and dozens of city councilors. Come April, we'll have the opportunity to choose the person who will occupy the mayor's office for the next four years. We'll also pick three for at-large seats on Council.

These leaders can neither raise taxes nor continue trillion-dollar wars in the Middle East. Nevertheless, their decisions can substantially impact our lives and pocketbooks. What they do, and the way they do it, is important.

The world they'll enter certainly has its flaws and limitations, some of which are obvious from the get-go. For instance, a couple decades ago you could say city elections were nonpartisan, both in theory and practice; today, only the former applies, with many candidates proudly proclaiming their fealty to the GOP and all it represents.

But we should pay no attention to that. The real problems of city government have nothing to do with partisan politics.

Inside and outside of government, folks who romanticize leadership love to prattle about "hard decisions" and "decisive action." On the Council dais, there are no decisive moments, no clarion calls to action, just unending messy process. Sometimes, you just shut up and find a way to move on.

"It's like those carnival games where you have three shots," Makepeace told me when I took a seat on Council in 1991. "You have to choose your targets carefully."

Are there particular leadership styles that succeed in this murky environment? After 25 years watching, participating in and writing about local government, I think there are.

Nice people don't always finish first, but it helps. Getting stuff done takes years, and lots of help. Angry, combative and contentious doesn't work. When Douglas Bruce served as a county commissioner, his abrasive manner alienated his colleagues.

"He actually comes up with some good ideas," said Wayne Williams, at the time his commission colleague, and now secretary-of-state-elect. "But since he's Doug, nobody listens."

Today, you can watch the dynamic play out again as Councilors Joel Miller and Don Knight rip into city employees and members of the public unfortunate enough to come under their baleful scrutiny. Here are links:

Laura Neumann and Miller, tiny.cc/i7tdpx; Mike Sullivan and Knight, tiny.cc/73tdpx; Wynetta Massey and Miller/Knight, tiny.cc/g5tdpx.

By contrast, Councilors Jan Martin and Jill Gaebler are unfailingly courteous and respectful. That was also true of Makepeace during her 18 years on Council, six as mayor.

To be an effective leader, you have to know how to run a meeting.

Is it a learned skill? I'm not so sure. Some teachers can silence a classroom with a glance; some dog owners can tame the most unruly mutt; some politicians can run a meeting. Makepeace, Sallie Clark, Rivera, Amy Lathen and Isaac ran meetings crisply, efficiently and fairly. They never allowed colleagues to ramble on, or argue with those who came before them. Council President Keith King, despite his long experience in the state Legislature, hasn't done as well.

Elected leaders can't lead without public confidence. You start with public support, and it's up to you thereafter.

"You need to be sincere," Isaac once told me. "You need to be honest with people, to say what you believe from the heart, and look 'em straight in the eye — and once you learn how to fake that, you'll be OK!"

It was an old joke, but Isaac was half-serious. Mayor Bob understood that the demands of politics often require reversing the Latin motto esse quam videri (to be rather than to seem). If you want to be remembered as a visionary leader, a little fairy dust comes in handy.

Just ask those noisy children and unruly dogs.

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