Emerging Generations in Local Government – 5

Cookingham Connection - Jenifer DVWe’re continuing our series in the Cookingham Connection with a perspective from an emerging leader in local government. You heard what a city manager had to say about Cookingham’s 5th guidepost. Now hear it from the perspective of Jenifer Della Valle, an MPA graduate from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Guidepost #5:

Be as humble as the humblest with whom you deal, and subdue by your patience those who are inclined to be arrogant. You must give as much time as is necessary to the person who is slow in understanding, and you must be patient with those who may be impatient with you.

I recently graduated from the UNC MPA program in May, having focused in local government management and graduating with two internships in local government. I’ve been working with the Town of Hillsborough, North Carolina as an ICMA Local Government Management Fellow for about three months now. Despite my limited experience in local government, I have observed that effective managers are often humble managers. I believe Cookingham’s fifth guidepost that focuses on humility and patience as a local government manager still resonates today.

Growing up, my parents emphasized humility and service to the communitya significant influencer in my decision to pursue a career in public service. Humility was reinforced throughout my studies at UNC: give the council credit when a project/idea succeeds and be willing to take full responsibility when it does not. It’s always very inspiring for me to attend ICMA conferences (yes, this is your unofficial reminder to register for the ICMA conference in Charlotte) because there are few places where I see such humility and devotion to the community in one location. To me, being humble is an important value to have generally, but there are additional benefits that come from genuine humility in leadership.

  • Enhances Employee Morale
    Humble managers are often not micro-managers. They yield this tight level of control and instead trust their employees, who are the experts in their respective areas, while still maintaining the level of accountability that ensures government operations are run well (#lifewellrun). This type of humility can enhance employee morale. Also, giving up this level of control frees up a manager’s time, which can instead be used to lead and see the bigger picture of the organization, rather than continuously getting stuck in the weeds of micro-management.
  • Openness toward Differing Ideas
    Thomas Friedman writes in his article How to Get a Job at Google that humility is one thing Google looks for when hiring employees. He states that the company looks for individuals who are “zealots about their point of view” but that have “the humility to step back and embrace the better ideas of others.” Humility is a valued trait across sectors for a reason—it can enhance the bottom line, regardless of what the bottom line looks like.
  • Confidence in Leadership
    In this discussion on humility, I want to emphasize that an individual can be both confident and humble, and it’s not an either/or situation. Jane Perdue writes in A Humblebrag Isn’t the Answer that individuals (women especially) often struggle in achieving that right balance of confidence and humility, and she outlines six ways to work toward that balance. Having both of these traits enables othersbe it employees, citizens, or the boardto trust in your leadership, while giving them the comfort to openly express themselves even when their ideas don’t align with yours.

Part of the guidepost states, “you must give as much time as is necessary to the person who is slow in understanding.” I know that when I am struggling to understand something, I ask questions… a lot of them. Sometimes they are complex, but often they are very simple questions. I have found that the simplest of questions can get at a fundamental issue. I can think of several instances when a person is explaining something and somebody (often a person with a fresh perspective) asks, “Why is it done this way?” The other person might respond, “I don’t know, it’s just always been done like this.” Sometimes it takes a simple question to realize that a complicated process can be changed, streamlined, and improved. Simple questions can have profound effects. Great questions or ideas can come from anyone, not just those who are quick to understand. Don’t underestimate the perspective that each person brings to the table.

Every once in a while, citizens will call the Town of Hillsborough Manager Eric Peterson with a question. Sharing office space with him, I hear as he patiently attends to the citizen, devoting 100 percent of his attention to that individual and always being open to their ideas and feedback. He has fostered this culture of humility and patience throughout the organization, and it often proves extremely effective.

There will always be individuals in your jurisdiction who seem to have one goal in life: to make your life difficult. As Scott Lazenby mentions in his reflection on this guidepost, “Just as one trouble-maker disappears from the scene, another will appear.” Treat an irate citizen with patience and humility, however, and they can surprise you. If all else fails, maintain the patience that Scott exhibits and like him, you’ll probably outlast them.

Service to the Community
Lastly, it is important to treat others with humility because although managers “serve at the pleasure of the board,” they ultimately serve the entire communitynot just the most intelligent, the few who attend council meetings, or even those who are always patient with you. Effective local government managers are often leaders who are able to work with people of varying personalities and figure out how to harness their personalities as strengths. That often comes through a blend of humility and patience, and sometimes a little bit of yoga.

The Cookingham Connection blog series is published in partnership with Emerging Local Government Leaders (ELGL). ELGL members are local government leaders with a passion for connecting, communicating, and educating.

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