“The best leaders subsume and keep in check all self-serving ambition in others and themselves in order to accomplish a mission that serves everyone”. — Deke Copenhaver
Naked ambition. It can be driven by. greed, lust for attention or a simple want to maintain a power base through doggedly clinging to the status quo. Throughout my career I’ve watched the crippling effects this all too frequent element can have when introduced into an organizational structure through leaders from within the organization itself.
Whether it be the public or the private sector the fundamental impact is the same: when this organizational hazard is allowed to exist for any length of time it acts like a disease insidiously infecting the core mission and undermining the health of the entire enterprise. If left unchecked the disease begins to spread and metastasize with the long term prognosis for the organization becoming progressively worse over time. More often than not, the end result is gut wrenching to watch from close range and major surgery is required in the form of new leadership, completely cleaning house within the organization or putting the patient permanently to bed.
How do we cure this epidemic? This is a question I’ve asked myself many times as I’ve sought to, or at times been asked to, intervene in toxic situations impacting many different organizations while achieving successful outcomes through a practical, though challenging to implement, approach along the way. The most notable example of this was my decision to run for mayor of the city of Augusta, Georgia in 2005.
As a city fortunate to have a military base, a thriving medical community, a strong manufacturing base and the Masters Golf Tournament contributing to our economic stability, I had long been told that our local economy was recession proof. However at that point. Augusta’s tax base had begun to erode and our population was shrinking. Having studied demographic trends I was well aware of the long term, and often times devastating, impact trend lines pointed in this direction have on cities with Detroit being the most notable example.
When analyzing the situation I took a decidedly business like approach to making the decision to run for office. Given the asset side of the equation and the fact that the city had an internationally known brand name associated with excellence to work with, I came to view our local government as. somewhat of a takeover candidate where, given the right conditions, new leadership could have a major impact on the entire enterprise. However, I also knew. that in order for this endeavor to be successful. I would have to always maintain a “we first” as opposed to “me first” mindset as no individual leader is ever able to accomplish anything alone and helping to point an entire city. in a positive direction could never happen without a true team effort.
Throughout my nine years as a pubic servant. I knew that setting the tone for both our local government and the city as a whole was of the utmost importance in order to create a culture of success. In this regard, I constantly maintained a positive and upbeat attitude while repeatedly highlighting each success our city had, from big job announcements to national rankings, in order to build morale in both residents and city employees. I also underscored the pivotal role the citizens of our city played in creating an environment which afforded the opportunity for great things to happen. Over time the outlook of a city began to turn from decidedly pessimistic to hopeful and optimistic with each success on behalf of the whole being leveraged towards greater heights.
After first being elected. I set out with three goals as my mission: to create jobs and opportunity for people at all levels, to help heal Augusta’s racial divide and to help our local government run more efficiently. As a novice who had never before run for office and a political independent with no ambition for higher office, I was fortunate to not have the desire to further my political career factor into my decision making or adversely impact my adherence to serving the greater good of my citizenry while potentially causing a distraction from the mission at hand.
By stepping into the role of lead salesman/entrepreneur for the city and working closely with our city’s economic development team, together we were able to help. create thousands of jobs through the recruitment of companies such as Automatic Data Processing, T-Mobile, Starbucks, Rockwood Pigment, Costco, Whole Foods and Unisys. By using the platform of the mayor’s office, knowing our product and staying focused on the mission while understanding each individual’s role in it, our successes in the recruitment of new businesses represented a truly collaborative approach to economic development. Through this team effort our local economy grew, citizens were provided with jobs and opportunity and Augusta was able to avoid the brunt of the Great Recession. Today these businesses continue to remain some of city’s largest employers and represent many of the cornerstones of our community’s economic base.
As Augusta had the unfortunate reputation for racially divisive politics, I knew from the outset of taking office that this issue had to be proactively addressed. Prior to entering office I had made the observation that walls of mistrust. within cities, or any other organization, are built and preserved by individuals who maintain their power base by ensuring the walls stay in place. Whether it be of a racial, political, socioeconomic or corporate nature, I had also come to realize that keeping these walls in place by individuals within organizations meant making their supporters afraid of who was on the other side of the wall. My response to addressing this issue was. relatively simple: go around the power structure and bring people together at the grassroots level.
The day. I took office I had worked with other community leaders ahead of time to establish a non-denominational prayer breakfast which we held for the first time that morning. The breakfast is held once a month in different places of worship. From venues in large and small. predominantly white churches to churches throughout the African-American community as well as a local Jewish Temple, the breakfasts are. always inclusive and open to anyone who would like to attend. Over time, these breakfasts led to citizens from a wide variety of races, ethnicities, faiths and socio-economic backgrounds establishing lasting. bonds of friendship with the fabric of the community strengthened and historic walls of mistrust being torn down in the process. Today the monthly breakfasts maintain a richly diverse vibrancy more than a decade. after the first one was held and more than a year since I exited office.
Another observation regarding local walls of mistrust being held in place led to my taking a leadership role in our neighborhood revitalization efforts. For many years our historic inner-city African-American neighborhoods had undergone an escalating process of disinvestment and endured decades of being made promises of revitalization efforts to come which never fully materialized. Having spent time in the business of real estate and development prior to becoming mayor, it was very apparent to me that. no private developer would begin redevelopment within these neighborhoods as the risk of being able to turn a profit was far too great. In trying to fully grasp the situation, I put myself in the place of the residents within these historic areas and considered how I would feel if I had been told over an extended period of time that positive change was coming without consistently seeing tangible results.
Early during my tenure Commissioner Betty Beard, a colleague I had developed a good working relationship with, had begun to champion the redevelopment of the inner city neighborhoods of. Laney-Walker and Bethlehem. When $37.5 million in funding came available through a $1 increase on the city’s hotel/motel room fee, I saw an opportunity to support her efforts and proposed that the funds be. directed towards what has now become Augusta’s innovative and nationally recognized Laney-Walker/Bethlehem Revitalization Initiative. Though the path to approval proved to be. very difficult with more than a few bumps and bruises along the way, final approval for funding the initiative was granted by the Augusta Commission in 2008 . In undertaking the project the City became the Master Developer and began an extensive planning process with, as opposed to for, the residents of the neighborhoods with regards to what the revitalization effort should look like.
Ultimately the city was able to create a market that didn’t previously exist which attracted new residents to the neighborhoods while bringing in much needed private sector investment. Through the implementation of a holistically developed. plan, existing residents were able to stay in place and over time our local tax base was significantly increased through the process.
The initiative. also managed to tear down historic walls of mistrust through the simple fact that an inclusive plan was established by working together with the residents of the neighborhoods, the city backed the plan through a dedicated funding source. and the city followed through with the implementation process.
I’ll never forget the heartwarming feeling of seeing the real world outcome of how following through on a promise and a plan can impact the psyche of a neighborhood. Several years ago as I. rode down Laney-Walker Boulevard in our annual Martin Luther King, Jr. Day Parade an elderly. gentleman in the crowd made it a point to get my attention as the parade passed by while shouting, “Thank you for what you’ve done for our neighborhood! It looks beautiful!”. Words will never be able to fully express what this memory will always mean to me.
In 2013, the initiative was awarded the prestigious HUD Secretary’s “Opportunity and Empowerment Award” by the U.S. Department of Urban Development and the American Planning Association. Today, the mission and the plan it helped implement continue to improve the lives of local families and individuals far beyond my term in office.
In the end, adhering to the first two pieces of the mission I had set, to create jobs and opportunity and to heal the racial divide, helped lead to addressing the third piece by helping our local government to run more efficiently. In essence, having a focus on growing the local economy through creating jobs added significantly to the tax base as well as to the disposable income of local citizens directly impacting the city’s bottom line. The same can be said for neighborhood revitalization with these efforts increasing the tax base while decreasing the need for services to our focus neighborhoods by lowering the crime rate and proactively addressing the strain on our city budget created by major code enforcement issues associated. with blighted neighborhoods. In both cases a mission to serve the greater good proved to have. a direct and very positive impact on the bottom line.
Organizational structure and the ability of any organization to serve its stated mission will always be subject to the damaging impact of those who would put serving the needs of their own ambition above serving the greater good and overall health of the organization. However, I would submit to you that this type of challenge can be overcome in all sectors of society when those in leadership positions commit themselves to setting a vision for whatever organization they may serve which is able to inspire and empower those around them while focusing on long term decision making as opposed to decisions made based upon what is politically expedient. I would also submit that missions are only sustainable over time and able to weather administration changes or organizational challenges when they keep four key principles at their core: they must make sense, they must simply feel right, they must. be realistic in their goals and they must establish a firm foundation which inspires others to build upon.