MinnPost has assembled a panel of leadership experts and scholars, who are rotating in commenting on each of what will be 24 examples of leadership profiled in our yearlong series, “Driving Change: A Lens on Leadership.” Today William Joynes of Hamline University comments on aspects of leadership presented in “Mike Christenson: From Phillips to North Side, he knows how to engage a community.”
William Joynes worked in the Phillips Neighborhood of Minneapolis during the 1970s helping to administer the Model Cities urban renewal program. So he couldn’t help but make then/now comparisons when he read about Mike Christenson’s work in Phillips some 30 years later.
“The mistake that was made in the ’60s and ’70s was that in a sense, we tried to buy jobs,” said Joynes, who now directs the Center for Public Administration and Leadership at Hamline University in St. Paul.
To be sure, money was invested in the neighborhood back then. People were hired, and they provided services deemed to be helpful.
“But there was not much thought about creating jobs that were sustainable,” Joynes said.
In other words, once the program money dried up so would the jobs.
Christenson’s strategy of building public-private coalitions and engaging companies big and small as partners in revitalizing Phillips was “the right way to go,” Joynes said.
So, smart strategy was one point in the story of the leadership that helped turn around the Phillips neighborhood.
But there was more.
“You need a champion, and Christenson played that role very well,” Joynes said.
Bringing many sides together
Prior to taking his post at Hamline, Joynes worked more than 30 years as a city manager, first in White Bear Lake, then in Golden Valley. So he has had ample opportunity to observe the evolution in the role of the effective leader — civic champion, if you will.
“I’ve seen a change in terms of the quality of leadership and the skill levels that people bring to the work,” he said.
One change is that today’s leaders in public administration deal more effectively with complex issues. There is no one way to run a city or solve a problem, and leaders like Christenson are sensitive to that reality.
A related change is that the effective leader no longer is an authoritarian figure but rather someone who is “much more able to facilitate and collaborate, and bring folks other together to solve problems,” Joynes said.
“Christenson is clearly in that mode,” Joynes said. “You almost always have to bring all kinds of elements together to solve a problem because the problems that we have are almost never single-faceted sorts of things,” he said.
“Problems almost always have multiple variables, multiple constituencies and lots of different consequences,” he said. “So if you are going to get anything done in this environment, particularly in a situation where the problems are as dynamic as Christenson had in Minneapolis, you have to really be able to get people to trust you and come together and buy into the problem and the solution.”
More than a meeting
Christenson did, indeed, bring people together. One section in the profile depicts a pivotal meeting in the Minneapolis mayors’ office where top city and county officials met with CEOs whose companies had operations in Phillips.
But meetings are routine events. What makes one pivotal while the next one is just another meeting?
“In the Model Cities program, we were really good at organizing meetings,” Joynes said. They organized citizen planning committees and involved impressive numbers of people.
“But oftentimes there was no overriding directive defining what they were going to do,” Joynes said. “The whole idea was citizen participation as a goal in and of itself, but it was not well directed.”
Christenson and others in the more recent Phillips initiative “created a vision, and then they really targeted what they had to do,” Joynes said.
Their strategy was to deal with crime, housing and other problems at the same time they added new life to the neighborhood’s economy.
Again, Joynes saw the creation of real and lasting jobs as the key.
“If you create sustainable jobs, then the rest of the stuff tends to follow in terms of people having some sense of ownership in the area,” he said. “Businesses are created. Things are cleaned up, and people start to care. They also start to realize that all of the elements in the community – whether it’s Wells Fargo or a Mexican restaurant, they all contribute to the well being of the community and they are in a sense co-dependent.”
With those pieces in place, a community can thrive, he said. Trust builds, including trust that police will protect the neighborhood. Even in troubled neighborhoods, residents at that point begin talking to police about crime problems.
“It’s kind of a big, huge, mushy thing,” Joynes said. “But when you start to have that vision and talk about real objectives people can buy into and see results, then you can start to move forward.”
Thriving on controversy
Call it courage. Or just thick skin. One thing for sure about the job of a civic leader is that it comes with heaps of criticism.
“One of the hallmarks of that type of leadership is the ability to stay the course in the face of criticism,” Joynes said.
Some people will be furious with a given plan, while others will be delighted. Some will demand more planning time; others will want action in a hurry. Timelines will slip out of control, and plans will change.
A leader like Christenson not only learns to live with that level of controversy and chaos but grows to thrive on the challenges it poses.
“I would be mightily surprised if he wasn’t a person who kind of enjoys the controversial stuff,” Joynes said. “The discussion is what is important. If you can keep that in mind, then you don’t get beaten down by the negative attacks.”
Most effective leaders in the public sector learn not to take those attacks personally.
Democracy: a conflict resolution system
“It’s part of the process,” Joynes said. “Fundamentally, what democracy is all about is a conflict resolution system, and that plays out every time you try to make a change.”
To a certain point, controversy can be constructive.
“It keeps you from making mistakes,” Joynes said. “So you really step back and say, ‘OK. We want to make sure we have the dialog. We know people are going to oppose this. Other people are going to favor it. Their discussion should get us to a better point.’ “
Just as an attorney can defend a despicable criminal, a leader in public administration can learn to distinguish between personal feelings and the duty entailed in the business at hand.
“If you can do that, you can be successful,” Joynes said. “And I’m sure that’s what Mike Christenson is. He can do that.”