Resources for Leaders in Difficult Times

The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands in times of challenge and controversy. – Martin Luther King Jr.

In the month of January, we honor Martin Luther King Jr.’s life and leadership. One way of honoring King’s memory is to reflect on the principles for which he stood.

A key theme of many of King’s observations is that leadership — true leadership — involves making difficult and sometimes unpopular choices based on one’s core principles. It can also involve serving a community where people are frustrated and angry with forces that are outside local officials’ control or influence.

While there is no easy answer to the difficult decisions local leaders must often make, a number of strategies can make such work easier. A key element of the Institute for Local Government (ILG) mission in service to local leaders is providing information on such strategies. The following examples offer good illustrations of these strategies.

The Ends Don’t Justify the Means. King repeatedly counseled his followers that “the means we use must be as pure as the ends we seek.” Pursuing worthy goals using questionable means — that is, using approaches that are inconsistent with commonly held core values of trust, respect, responsibility and fairness — is inconsistent with King’s teachings. In a similar vein, decision-making that reflects a leader’s sense of what truly serves the public’s interest, as opposed to narrow economic, political or personal interests, is central to the concept of ethical public decision-making. Visit for more resources on public service ethics principles and laws.

Listening Is a Leadership Skill. Determining what course of action best serves the public’s interest is not always self-evident. Part of that determination involves seeking input from all elements of the community. Even as he encouraged peaceful demonstrations and resistance to unjust policies, King noted that riots are the voices of the unheard. ILG’s information on public engagement strategies (at offers local leaders help with bringing the public’s voice to the local decision-making process.

How We Speak Matters. King was a proponent of civil public discourse. In explaining the nonviolent purpose of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963, King and others offered this insight:

In a neighborhood dispute there may be stunts, rough words and even hot insults; but when a whole people speaks to its government, the dialogue and the action must be on a level reflecting the worth of that people and the responsibility of that government. [Italics added for emphasis.]

As community leaders, local officials can play an important role in promoting civility in community debate by acknowledging that people of good will can disagree about what course of action will best move the community forward on an issue. A key strategy is to keep the conversations away from questioning the motivations or character of those whose ideas differ.

This is an area where local leaders have a tremendous opportunity to lead by example. ILG recently updated its work on this topic with a new tip sheet on ways to promote civil discourse. Visit to access the tip sheet and ILG’s other materials on this topic.

With respect to the subject of listening and welcoming diverse perspectives, ILG’s work reflects the collective wisdom of the local government community. ILG welcomes local officials’ input and contributions to its work in service to good government at the local level. If you are interested in learning more about ILG’s work and how you can be a part of it, e-mail to be connected with the appropriate program staff. 

This article appears in the January 2012 issue of Western City
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