You ain’t gonna please ‘em all. To put it more eloquently, as the poet John Lydgate and Abraham Lincoln did, “you can please some of the people all of the time, you can please all of the people some of the time, but you can’t please all of the people all of the time”. In the final phase of my Bush Fellowship application, I quoted Dante’s passage about hell and neutrality. That was pre-pandemic and before the 2020 election cycle. I had no idea how much the world would change over the next 18 months and how those two ideas would play into my understanding of leadership. My fellowship has provided a tremendous opportunity to develop my leadership personally and at the local and national levels. Understanding the interrelated nature of these three areas to the whole of my leadership has been a challenge and a realization. It has required an acceptance that I will let people down when I follow my heart. It has forced me to acknowledge that hiding behind the neutrality of normalizing lies and hatred as “differences of opinion” is tearing my community and our country apart.
My leadership journey has been a lesson in staying the course amidst increasingly extreme edges at the local level. It has taught me how lonely the middle can be when these voices discourage moderation, dialog, and vulnerability. Shortly after the announcement of our Fellowship class, in the days following the murder of George Floyd when emotions were raw and tensions were high, I was criticized for my selection as a fellow because as a white male, I did not deserve the distinction, did not sincerely want to address issues of bias and hatred in my community, and had stolen the ideas incorporated into my application. My application primarily dealt with the discrimination towards people of non-Christian faiths, particularly Muslims, in our communities, and the work I wanted to continue with Minnesota Mayors Together in addressing this bias. Nothing had been stolen in my application. Nothing was insincere in my work, and I had to let that go if I wanted to do the work. A few months later, I felt the pressures from the other end of the spectrum when I welcomed a Hindu spiritual leader to provide the invocation prior to a city council meeting. In all my years of serving as a local elected official, I had never felt such intense emotion and exclusion from certain segments of my community. The fundamentalist Christians made it clear that they believed our city was white and Christian. They had no intention of welcoming or even allowing beliefs outside their own. Again, I had to shake the dust off of my feet and move along and steer the course that wasn’t neutral and wouldn’t please everyone, but I knew in my heart was right.
Last month I was informed that I had been selected as one of 20 state and local elected officials from across the nation to be part of the NewDEAL’s 2021 leadership class. I did not even realize that I had been nominated. It was an incredible honor, but I initially considered declining the invitation. I would rationalize that it was a hectic time in my life with five kids and two restaurants. But deeper, I realized that it was easier to decline the invitation than take the inevitable criticism and critique that would come with the recognition. I would be criticized locally by those on the right over the NewDEAL messaging such as “pro-growth progressive policies” and “building back better”. The political realities of the community I served would make my ideas and accomplishments seem overly sluggish and moderate compared to the people-centered and progressive policies that the other leaders could enact in communities and states they represented. But after deeper personal consideration along with conversation with my wife, I realized that of course I would accept the opportunity. I was committed to being the best leader I could be. I would do what I could, with what I had, where I was, regardless of criticisms or feelings of inadequacy. In my initial fellowship application, I talked about the lion in The Wizard of OZ and the search for heart and courage. My leadership journey taught me that I have always had the heart and the courage, but just a little too much care and caution for what others think of me.
On a personal level, I have realized the great possibilities for growth when we exhibit vulnerability. In my studies at the Humphrey Institute, the first year was a prescribed schedule of leadership, analysis, and policy courses with a cohort of other mid-career professionals. Over the summer, I took the opportunity to research and write about Minnesota political history and the lessons we might learn in facing our current divides through independent study. During the current semester, I had the opportunity to design my schedule of courses. Given the state of the present universe, an entirely online plan would have been possible. But I decided that the opportunity for in-person interaction and engagement with my colleagues was essential to growth and worth the seven-hour roundtrip road trip once a week. I also decided that improving my communication skills was a central part of my fellowship and critical to my growth as a leader in addition to studying public policy. So, I got out of my comfort zone and enrolled in a writing class in the MFA program and a storytelling course from the Carlson School of Management. It hasn’t been easy. Staying in my lane would have been easy. My fellowship has taught me that I am not interested in what is easy. I am not interested in neutrality for the benefit of conformity. I am not interested in pleasing others in the same manner I was at the start of my journey.