MinnPost has assembled a panel of leadership experts and scholars, who are rotating in commenting on each of the examples of leadership profiled in our series, “Driving Change: A Lens on Leadership.” Today, Laura Bloomberg, the executive director for the Center for Integrative Leadership at the University of Minnesota, comments on aspects of leadership presented in “The advocate: Mary Cecconi educates parents, legislators to help them support education.”
When heading a grass-roots organization, leaders lead through “presence and participation,” which is a fancy way of saying they show up, know what they’re talking about and stand firm in their beliefs while still listening to other people.
That’s how Laura Bloomberg describes Mary Cecconi, the president of Parents United for Public Schools. In addition to being the executive director for the Center of Integrated Leadership at the University of Minnesota and the interim associate dean at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs, Bloomberg is also a longtime Parents United board member and has known Cecconi for years.
“When Mary was on the school board in Stillwater, I was on the school board in Mahtomedi,” Bloomberg said. “I’ve been watching her since the Apple Computer controversy until now, and it’s been a very interesting journey.”
‘An excellent connector’
Bloomberg has no hesitation when she ticks off the ways in which Cecconi is a leader.
“She’s an excellent connector of people and information. She doesn’t withhold information, and that’s a strong leadership trait for her.”
Bloomberg says that in political settings, people tend to use information as currency. Cecconi has turned that philosophy on its head, Bloomberg said. Cecconi knows the more widely she shares information, the better off Minnesota parents are.
“She knows the more transparent she can make an organization, the more she can move people. You see this often in great leaders but not often in leaders who only have one tool in their toolkit because hoarding knowledge consolidates their power. In the end, though, they don’t find it very effective,” Bloomberg says.
Cecconi also takes the long view. “We won’t be able to fix all our problems with action today. Mary understands this and takes the long view on finance and school policy. At the same time, she retains a sense of emergency with the daily battles during the session.
“You don’t see this very often,” Bloomberg says. “It’s a sign of great leadership that you can do both, zoom in and zoom out. She can see where we want to be, not just in the next decade but further ahead, yet she can also see what we need in each education finance bill.”
Leadership: In part it’s showing up
Cecconi also shares a more workmanlike quality with other leaders, Bloomberg says: She knows that leadership is in part just showing up and modeling behavior. Through modeling, a good leader has a far greater impact than if they simply tell people what to do, she says.
Similarly, Cecconi has, over the years, developed an extensive network of contacts among influential people, and Bloomberg says many leaders are content ruling the network from afar.
“But Mary shows up at meetings throughout the state and is willing to change her schedule at the drop of a hat to help a group of parents. We call that ‘presence and participation’ and through it, she stresses the model to parents of what she wants them to do.”
Cecconi is also intellectually trustworthy.
“I don’t always agree with Mary, but I always know she’s trustworthy,” Bloomberg says. “We can have a heated debate because she’s passionate about education, but you always know where she stands. That’s a very good leadership trait.”
Are there others in Minnesota who closely resembles Cecconi’s leadership qualities? After a moment’s thought, Bloomberg offered Art Rolnick.
“He is absolutely committed to early childhood enrollment. He puts his heart and soul into the topic because he believes strongly in it. He’s just like Mary, very determined and very focused.”