Strong and Grounded Leadership Starts with Listening Well

Wednesday, November 18, 2015 - 12:30

“Citizen voice” rings so distinctly as a factor critical to community and civic life that I hope the phrase rises to much more common use.

Arguably, elected officials who hear, heed and value what citizens have to say govern better, right? That question was very much in the air at a recent gathering of the board of directors of the Heidelberg Club International in Heidelberg, Germany, a support group to that German city’s science innovation and intellectual leadership in the world.

From Heidelberg to New York to Oakland, our staff reports back from a range of conferences they attended this month.

Science and medicine have defined the modern era of the city and current Heidelberg Mayor Dr. Eckart Wuerzner just won a second eight-year term in office on the strength of his commitment to defining the city as a 21st century center of knowledge and discovery.

Wuerzner won overwhelming voter affirmation with a simple campaign that featured posters hung around the city depicting just his face and the words “You know me.” Indeed, it seems everyone does. Wuerzner maintains a furious pace and holds the reins of a sometimes fractious political coalition. Yet even with that, Wuerzner’s staff has created an app on the city’s website that encourages citizens to nominate and vote to #GetTheMayor out to places and in face-to-face meetings with people he might not meet while concentrating on big, long-term projects like a 500-acre military base conversion and a 280-acre brownfield redevelopment. Wuerzner’s chief of staff says the Mayor invariably comes away from these meetings feeling refreshed, renewed in his enthusiasm for his work, and reconnected to a sense of personal and political purpose. Heidelberg isn’t just a “City of the Future,” which was the theme of the conference I attended. It’s also very much a city with a long and prosperous future ahead because of leadership like Wuerzner's.

In the spirit of the gathering, I co-moderated a working group to grapple with what governance will mean in cities of the future. I argued that good governance depends on three essential truths at the core of democratic politics and government. All three keep citizens – and a respect for citizen voice – in focus. Specifically, leaders must:

  • Gain the consent to govern. Democratic governments achieve this consent through elections in which citizens project their voices by casting votes for candidates who have campaigned on the strength of accomplishments and a promised agenda. Ideally, elections empower leaders to direct the resources and the power of the permanent institutions of government toward achieving an agreed-upon public good.
  • Maintain mutual engagement between leader and citizen. This keeps communication open, transparent and current while allowing citizens various channels for input and the leader to hear citizen concerns. Engagement happens formally and informally, through a variety of means ranging from casual citizen-leader contact to formal processes of access like city council meetings, and established routes for redress and repair when citizens need them.
  • Achieve visible improvement through results that matter in communities. Citizens expect to see government at work and visible, accomplishing such things as efficient and fair policing, public space development and upkeep, reliable social services, infrastructure maintenance and modernization, and quality education for young people. Visible results place the resources and permanent institutions of government in service to needs and wants that echo citizen voices and resonate with the leader’s priorities.

For officials elected to govern in democracies, the price of staying connected may lie precisely in working hard to hear what often takes the most effort to discern: the authentic citizen voice yearning for understanding. That’s true now. And surely it will remain true as long as cities persist in being the preferred places for people to gather and thrive in the future.