Because I am a systems thinker, I know that outcomes of any kind are the products of systems that are perfectly designed to produce those products and that those systems, unless altered, will always and only produce the same results. That's why I can say with authority that if you’ve recently been elected or appointed to a position of titular leadership in an organization that hasn’t done anything in decades, it’s not an honor it’s an insult and an indictment. You were elected because the do-nothing organization knew they could count on you to prevent, not promote, positive change. Why? Because the last thing do-nothing organizations want is positive change so they perpetuate and guarantee their culture of backwards thinking by passing the cold, charred, flameless torch of leadership to those who won’t show them up, those who can be counted on to get nothing done. Your election or appointment was exactly the outcome the system is designed to produce. You are the same kind of dud the system has been producing for decades and will continue to produce unless the system is changed. The fact that nobody changes it is proof that the keepers and protectors of the system want the system to produce duds like you.
In towns whose tax base and population are declining, new leadership is suffocated in the crib through exclusion from programs, organizational leadership and committee membership. The last thing an existing leader wants is to share power, glory, credit, recognition or influence with someone else so potential leaders are at first ignored and, later, if they seem to be getting some traction, attacked by the current titular leadership. (See my 26 July 2009 review of Tribes by Seth Godin).
Most of the time where you see a whole town that has been declining for decades, all the existing orgs in that town from City Hall to the Rotary Club to The Chamber of Commerce and even the Regional development Authority are co-conspirators in the town’s demise. The rank and file members of those orgs can’t be depended on to elect real leaders because they haven’t see any real leadership in their lifetime so they don’t know what leadership looks like. Sometimes this inability to discern preventers of leadership from real leaders is so pervasive that an entire town loses its ability to even elect a capable mayor or city council.
When a town or a region has raised an entire generation of people who don’t know that their so-called leaders are fools or impostors, new organizations sometimes spring up promising to bring change. But these organizations can’t transform their communities without changing the culture of low expectations and aspirations that the current leadership has fostered.
If you’re serious about changing your community, you first have to identify the people who feel disenfranchised and ignored by the titular leadership – the mayor, the city council, the Chamber of Commerce, the Rotary, the Regional development Authority. These disenfranchised people are the largest single interest group in any town. Inform them, get them thinking about the future of your community and, together, you can transform the community.
Don't waste your time trying to win over the existing leaders. The existing leaders see capable young leadership as a threat to the status quo and to their natural human tendency to enshrine the past and defend past decisions.
If your town's civic orgs don't get anything done and won't give you a "seat at the table" find the disenfranchised majority and enfranchise them. Start a new organization. Start a movement.
Second, you have to identify and empower people who really have a stake in the future of your town, people who would like to raise a family or start a business in your town. Forgive me for being blunt but in the kind of backwards, small towns I’m thinking of, the older folks who run the town couldn’t care less about the future of the town. They’re retired, their businesses have been sold or closed, their children left years ago and their grandchildren will be making a life somewhere else. Chances are, if you live in a town that is losing businesses, losing population, losing its young people and losing its future, your town is run by people who have no stake in its future, people whose opposition to progress has more to do with ego than with principle, more to do with validating its past than with creating its future.
It doesn’t make any sense to entrust the future of your community to people who have no stake in your town’s future. Expose the civic and political leaders who have no stake in the decisions they make about your future.
And while you may begin the community culture change through organizations like Charleston Area Alliance or through new orgs like Create West Virginia, if you really want to change your community, you eventually need to elect Congress members, governors, legislators, mayors, regional development people, city council members and other leaders who actually have a stake in its future - people with kids to raise or businesses to start or educations to acquire. The change from a do-nothing, fall behind state or community to a vibrant state or community can’t happen if the reigns of political power are still held by people who don’t know why we should be laying down conduit and high speed fiber and don’t understand why Starbucks is not about coffee as much as its about creating democratic meeting places where people share ideas.
These people who “get” conduit and democratic meeting places are easy to find. They are your young people. I’m talking about young couples who need a good place to educate and raise their kids and young entrepreneurs who need a community capable of retaining and attracting the talent they will need to grow their businesses.
As I said in my 22 January 2010 post about economic development, your community may only be one Steve Jobs or one Sergey Brin away from giving birth to a company (or an industry) that will transform your region but if you drive away all the young thinkers and inventors and entrepreneurs, you may be driving away the next Google or Apple.
Maybe the inventor who can perfect the electric car lives in your town. Will he or she stay or will he or she leave?
Some of my regular readers may think this is a strange position for a “Boomer activist” like me to take. My regular readers may have expected me to say that leadership should be in the hands of people with years of experience and wisdom. No not unless those experienced, wise leaders have a stake in the future. Leadership should be in the hands of people with the greatest stake in your town’s future no matter what age they may be. A few of those people will be Boomers like me but most of them will be much younger.
To change the culture of a community you have to change the conversation of that community. Do you want to change the culture? Start a new conversation. Create a document that you can print out and put on windshields, stick behind storm doors and hand to young adults you see in your daily walk. Your document might say:
"Is your community creating the kind of business, education, cultural, social and lifestyle in which the next Sergey Brin or Steve Jobs could be nourished and the next Google or Apple grown? If not, why not?"
Or your document might say, "Think of a talented person who left your community and has no plans to ever come back. Why did he or she leave and what would we have to do to get him and people like him to come raise a family or start a business here?"
If you put your name and your contact information on that document I'll bet some of the disenfranchised and some of the voiceless young adults whose futures are being planned by people who have no stake in it will contact you and ask you what you plan to do.
If they do, start a movement. Start an organization of those with a stake.And even if you don't have a plan, you've planted a seed of change. You've changed the culture a little bit just by changing the conversation from "How can we raise money for this year's stupid parade?" to "How can we make our town the kind of place where a young inventor or entrepreneur would want to build the next Apple?"
Your future was being planned by others since before you were conceived. After conception, your first 9 months was a case of gestation without representation. Somewhere between the womb and the tomb, shouldn't your future be decided when you're in the room?
Higginbotham At Large is happy to publish dissenting - even insulting - comments but Higginbotham At Large will no longer publish anonymous or pseudonymous comments or comments from readers who hide behind the name of an organization, a company or one of those silly "CB handles".