I am fortunate to have been surrounded by people—family members and friends—who encouraged me to learn and to enjoy learning from a very early age. I am also fortunate to have spent so much of my life here in Boone County, where education is not only a rite of passage but also an economic force for our community. Perhaps it is that pervasive presence of an education overlay, almost something in the water, that led me to return, again and again, to realize that “the capacity to learn is a gift, the ability to learn is a skill, and the willingness to learn is a choice.”
After undergraduate and graduate degrees in Spanish, a law degree, and then later a Masters in Alternative Dispute Resolution, I have been involved for the last several months with the High Performance Leadership Academy, a 12-week program sponsored by the National Association of Counties (NACo). My curiosity was piqued at the outset because the curriculum was developed especially for those involved in county government by Retired General Colin Powell, who showed such leadership capacity in the military and in government.
The Academy is designed to empower “frontline county government professionals with fundamental, practical leadership skills to deliver results for counties and residents.” I thought, “hmmm, I can spend a bit of money and commit time to this project, I can learn, I can help others learn, and, if it means that the county benefits, why not?” So, I wrote the check, decided I would be a bit busier than normal, and I took the plunge.
For three months, an eclectic group of county officials, managers in county government from across the country, and I took a deep dive into what it means to be a leader, how we could each become better leaders, and how we could empower those with whom we work to rise to a position of leadership. Each week of the program, we were exposed to the experience and expertise of a wide array of leaders, in government and industry, including General Powell, who, through oral and written commentary, helped us to craft our own personal statement of leadership and to understand how our leadership efforts can enhance or detract from the success of people, projects, and policies within our particular agency.
We also met virtually, in smaller groups, one day each week, to discuss the information and how it related to current issues, each of us helping the others in our group to apply the learning and increase our individual capacity to work with colleagues and constituents to improve the quality of life in our communities. During one week, we even had the opportunity to participate in a mock negotiation, practicing some of the skills that the experts had modeled during the coursework. And, yes, that exercise was among the most fun for me as I utilized skills developed as a lawyer during several decades of practice and honed even further through work in mediation and arbitration.
Some of the lessons learned and reinforced during this course:
As part of the course, we each were encouraged to develop our own leadership oath—the core principles by which we function within our organization. For me, these principles became refined as follows:
This learning opportunity came at an interesting time. COVID-19 had increased the county workload in many respects, so setting aside the time for the classwork was a bit more challenging. Nonetheless, each lesson provided a way to enhance existing and develop new leadership skills. Together, my county colleagues and I learned to pivot, even to pirouette, as the pandemic placed new obstacles in our paths.
We learned to value the skills that each person brought to the table. We learned to take personal responsibility and to seek a collaborative approach to ensure projects were successful. We remembered to be grateful for the extra efforts by those around us in developing solutions to new and ever-changing circumstances. And, we remembered to be kind.
This process has also solidified for me an understanding of how county government operates and how planning for the future—sometimes known as strategic planning—can happen and be successful, especially in the context of Boone County.
County and City: Different Governmental Structures
Although often compared to the City of Columbia, Boone County’s governmental structure is unlike the City’s in many ways. The City, with the Mayor, City Council, and City Manager, has a relatively simple structure within which decision-making authority travels. By contrast, the county has 13 independently elected officials (not counting the judges), all of whom have independent authority.
The County Commission, while having authority over physical assets of the county, like its buildings, and having ultimate authority to set the annual budget, does not control how the other officials choose to run their offices. Through time, and by recognizing the efficiencies and good stewardship of working together, all of our officials have agreed to work out issues dealing with information technology and personnel, through joint committees in which those issues are addressed. But there are other issues, on a higher level, that require the development of a broader understanding of long-term goals and vision for the county. The job is not yet done!
Because of the unique structure of county government, with co-equal elected officials, as well as department managers who bring various viewpoints to the table, the development of a long-term plan cannot rest with nor even be promoted solely by the County Commission. It must be the result of a group effort, in which the input of all stakeholders is both sought and valued. Leadership, in this context, is NOT deciding the direction of the discussion.
It is in encouraging the stakeholders to find benefit in engaging in the process. It is in convening a setting in which the conversation can occur. It is in valuing the input of all stakeholders, from department directors to elected officials. It is in understanding when and why change must occur, and in knowing that stakeholders must be committed to that change for it to be successful.
Most importantly I have learned that leadership is not an individual effort. It is a group activity, as we learn collectively, and foster leadership cooperatively by involving everyone on our team in a dedicated effort to move our county into the future––together.