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Ralph Becker: What it takes to be a successful elected leader

It is not the title of an elected official that defines a good leader, but the characteristics, qualities, vision and approach that he or she brings to the job.
It is not the title of an elected official that defines a good leader, but the characteristics, qualities, vision and approach that he or she brings to the job.
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After almost 20 years in elected office, and a prior 20 years working for and with elected officials, I had the unique opportunity to spend this past year researching and reflecting on the elements of successful elected leadership — thanks to a fellowship supported by the Open Society Foundation. I focused on the traits and elements of effective elected official governance because the keys to success are not well-defined or understood.

I also believe that many people elected to office fail to deliver on their promises or the expectations of their constituents. It is not the title of an elected official that defines a good leader, but the characteristics, qualities, vision and approach that he or she brings to the job.

I looked especially at elected leadership in cities, where today we see far more innovation and action than at other levels of government. As Utah’s recent visitor Bruce Katz of the Brookings Institution and expert on the emerging metropolitan leadership role around the globe has noted: It is successful mayors who are more consistently networking across public and private sectors to accomplish pursuits that serve our present and future. This function of city leadership has been coined by Katz and others as the “metropolitan revolution” in “a century of cities.” Metropolitan areas are where most people live and work: U.S. and Utah metro areas comprise 80 percent of the population and 90 percent of the economy.

The dysfunction and failure of our federal government (and many state governments) was a silent counterpoint to my focus on local leadership.

My fellowship activities included reflections on my own experiences as a state legislator and Salt Lake City mayor, as well as in-depth reviews of the leadership in three other U.S. cities that are very different: Louisville, Kentucky; Gary, Indiana; and Austin, Texas. The mayors of these cities are respected in national governance circles as leaders who are delivering strong results in their communities and finding success despite challenging odds.

For example, Mayor Greg Fischer of Louisville, a successful entrepreneur before becoming mayor, launched an “Office for Globalization” that addresses the city’s growing immigrant population. Innovative in its approach, it focuses on strategies to better engage and welcome the international community and to help newcomers maximize their talents, start businesses and engage in Louisville’s transition into an internationally competitive city.

Louisville, like Salt Lake City, is a resettlement community that hosts tens of thousands of refugees from around the world. The mayor’s initiative turns the challenge of assimilating refugees into an economic development opportunity, and it also reinforces his pledge to make Louisville a “compassionate city” that encourages people’s human potential.

In Gary, Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson, a former state attorney general, launched a program called “Gary for Life,” which is delivering results as an anti-crime, community restoration initiative. The program treats community violence as a public-health issue, and has attracted the attention of state and national governments as a model for reducing violent crime.

In Austin, Mayor Steve Adler skillfully navigated efforts by the Texas Legislature and governor to override a city policy to provide gender-neutral public accommodations. By enlisting the powerful Texas business community to lobby against the state’s position, and recognize the adverse economic impacts of a discriminatory "bathroom bill," the mayor was able to ward off the state’s aggressive preemption efforts.

Elected leaders like these, who are delivering results and effecting positive change in their communities, share common traits and approaches. They stay focused on serving the public interest and on solutions over partisanship and the narrow politics of the next election. Good elected leaders inherently collaborate in their pursuits. Other important qualities that good elected leaders exhibit include:

  • A clear vision for their communities, and well-defined objectives
  • Compelling, value-based rationales articulated for their proposals and decisions
  • Prioritizing pursuits, choosing battles carefully and acknowledging resource limitations
  • Pragmatic assessments of what they can accomplish
  • Willingness to take political risks
  • Serving as conveners and engaging a full range of stakeholders, partners and the public
  • Transparency in their decision-making processes
  • Seeking consensus (not unanimity), and listening to all views
  • Getting buy-in of other affected decision-makers
  • Considering different alternatives and their consequences
  • Anticipating and adapting to the implementation of actions
  • Maintaining personal integrity
  • Practicing civility and compassion As is true in our personal lives, many of these traits and approaches to good elected leadership are aspirational. In this era of heightened distrust of government, it is clear to me that elected officials who genuinely embrace good governance attributes will help restore confidence in government and bring us a better future.

Ralph Becker is a former mayor of Salt Lake City.