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May 28, 2009

We expect public officials not only to see things as they are, but also as they ought to be.  Even the most experienced public official cannot acquire genuine insights without getting deeply and personally involved in the life of the community.

Leaders who know what to pay attention to and, more importantly, understand what it means, gain their most important insights from listening to others’ perspectives.  The astuteness and clarity of judgment we associate with wisdom and that we respect in our most influential public leaders have their origins in empathy.

Deepening public trust and confidence in government requires officials to go beyond hearing what people have to say and actually listening for the meaning behind their words and the feelings they represent.  Passive, disinterested observation, quantification, and categorization — typical bureaucratic behaviors — just won’t do if we genuinely wish to discern and serve the public interest.

Leaders who help people overcome the sense of loss that often accompanies any meaningful change understand the need to go beyond appeals to reason to address how people feel and what they value.  Pro forma public participation processes often go awry when they define problems or offer solutions that rely solely on technical input or scientific arguments.

Leaders who align their strategies with community values and engage stakeholders early see the payoff beyond a solution to the problem at hand.  They see in every problem an opportunity to promote a culture of engagement and accountability that builds individual character and organizational capacity by seeking community input when it matters most: when problems are defined and impacts are evaluated.

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