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Leading Isn’t Easy; You Might Want Some Help

Daniel K. Whitehurst is incoming president of the Institute for Local Government. He is a former mayor of Fresno and past president of the League’s Mayors and Council Members Department. He can be reached at dan@danwhitehurst.com.

Harriet Miller

People don't want their public officials to be "leaders." Marty Linsky, a faculty member at the John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, makes this point, and I think he’s right. Voters say they want strong leadership, but what many really want is the opposite: someone who will protect them from having to change their minds or their ways. And they often get their wish; there is no shortage of candidates who run for public office not to lead, but to be popular or important.

Fortunately, however, California has always had an abundance of local officials who are in politics for the right reasons. They want to improve their communities, which necessarily involves changing the status quo. The Institute for Local Government (ILG) exists to support these city and county officials who aspire to be real leaders and stewards.

Here are the three components of true leadership:

  • Wisdom - Knowing the right thing to do;
  • Character - Going about it in theright way; and
  • Effectiveness - Getting it done.

As the nonprofit research arm of the League and the California State Association of Counties, ILG keeps all three in mind when designing its programs. It offers information on emerging issues like climate change and children’s health. It’s a leading resource on ethics and best governance practices. And it explores new models for community decision-making. The institute’s key initiatives are:

  • Climate Change. Global warming is one of the most profound challenges we face. ILG’s new California Climate Action Network provides a way for local officials to share information and ideas and to work together to meet California’s ambitious goals to reduce greenhouse gas emissions www.ca-ilg.org/climatechange.
  • Communities for Healthy Kids. What could be more important to a community’s residents than the health of their children? Communities for Healthy Kids helps local officials connect eligible families with no- and low-cost health insurance for their children www.ca-ilg.org/chk.
  • Housing and Land Use. ILG’s Land Use and Housing program offers resources for local officials who want to promote affordable housing and sustainable development www.ca-ilg.org/landuse.
  • Ethics. ILG’s resources on public service ethics help local officials lead their communities so that they avoid inadvertent missteps and earn the public’s confidence in local decision-making www.ca-ilg.org/trust.
  • Fiscal Stewardship. A central element of local leadership is fiscal responsibility. ILG provides information, presented in nontechnical language, that helps officials oversee local agency finances www.ca-ilg.org/fiscal.
  • Civic Engagement. Local officials are increasingly called upon to ensure that multiple voices in the community are a part of the decision-making process, on issues ranging from planning and housing to budgeting and the environment. ILG’s Collaborative Governance Initiative provides consultation, publications and other resources to help local officials with inclusive decision-making www.ca-ilg.org/cgi.

The thread that runs through all these programs is support for wise, accountable, effective governance in California cities and counties. Exercising leadership can be a lonely road, but there are tools and resources available to you. We invite you to visit the ILG website (www.ilg-ca.org) and learn how we might help you bring about the improvements you seek for your community.

Now back to the original point. Although leadership can make people uncomfort able while it’s happening, the fact is they usually like the end result. As George Will says, "Leadership is, among other things, the ability to inflict pain and get away with it." When you see a city that has a vibrant downtown, beautiful parks or bustling community centers, you know getting there wasn’t painless or pretty. But you also know those residents enjoy a better quality of life because their leaders were willing to make tough (and seemingly endless) decisions and suffer political heat in order to make good things happen.

Finally, I should mention that ILG itself has been blessed with good leadership. For the past two years, we’ve been fortunate to have Harriet Miller as our president. She is stepping down from that role but will remain on the ILG board. Harriet, a former mayor of Santa Barbara, exemplifies the best tradition of public service. Her board colleagues and the ILG staff salute her contributions to our organization and to all California communities.