Making a Case for Change
In my job I get a chance to meet a lot of people from all walks of Kent. Unofficially, I’d say about 25% of the people I meet are optimistic for Kent’s future, 50% seem a bit uncertain with the remaining 25% disillusioned and even cynical about the prospects for the future. Somewhere along the way we’ve all met frustrations, been disappointed, or just got beaten down from banging our heads against that wall of inertia day after day; so even though I disagree with the critics, I fully appreciate the source behind their sentiment.
The challenge for me as City Manager is figuring out how to shine the light on Kent’s optimists, fan the flames of our undecided, and hopefully be the spark that reignites the Kent torch held idle in the hand of the skeptics. Arguing for meaningful transformation of our community is hard work. Study after study shows that the odds of making lasting changes are almost always working against us, even when our lives are at stake (think of quitting smoking). That challenge underscores the difficulty of changing the direction of a community of 25,000 people with 25,000 different agendas.
I’m not arguing change for change’s sake. What I’m talking about are doing those things that need to be done to keep up with a changing world. If we fail to stay fresh we run the risk of becoming irrelevant and losing the spirit of the legacy of those whose shoulders we stand on today.
In a great book, Self Renewal, John W. Gardner points out that most of us construct our own prisons and serve as our own jail keepers. To me that’s the danger of pessimism. By focusing only on our shortcomings we strengthen the ties that hold us down. In Alexandria Virginia I worked with a secretary who had worked as an elephant trainer (don’t ask) and she told me that adult elephants can be held by the same small ropes that were used on them as babies because the adult elephants believe they can’t break them when in truth they could pull them out at any time. That’s the power of our beliefs. I worry that’s what we do with our beliefs about our community when we back down from the risks of change.
On a personal level we seem to know how important it is to change, to grow and to learn. Likewise, we look for businesses to invest in that are able to continually reinvent themselves in order to stay competitive and produce economic results. Yet, we have a hard time accepting, much less leading, change in our communities. But communities are nothing more than people and businesses both of whom we know need change to survive.
I just finished an interesting article that shares insights into change. It noted that “Real change isn’t motivated by crisis or fear. The best inspiration comes from leaders who create compelling and positive visions of the future. Small, gradual changes rarely lead to transformation. Radical, sweeping changes are riskier but are also far more effective. And narratives, not facts guide our thinking.”
I think we have a chance to lead transformative change in Kent. Together we need to decide where we want to go and what we want to be as a city. Our window of opportunity is open and we must began to climb through before it narrows.
I’ll end with another two of my favorite John Gardner quotes that keep me inspired every day.
“Life is an endless unfolding, and if we wish it to be, an endless process of self discovery, an endless and unpredictible dialogue between our own potentialities and the life situations in which we find ourselves. By potentialities, I mean not just intellectual gifts but the full range of one’s capacities for learning, sensing, wondering, understanding, loving and aspiring.”
“We need to believe in ourselves and our future but not to believe that life is easy. Life is painful and rain falls on the just. Leaders must help us see failure and frustration not as reason to doubt ourselves but as reason to strengthen resolve. . . . Don’t pray for the day when we finally solve our problems. Pray that we have the freedom to continue working on the problems the future will never cease to throw at us.”
To me that is exactly why we musn’t give in to the call of cynicism. Kent deserves better and it’s up to us to deliver on that promise.