The Great Leadership Divide

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While the U.S. government is stalled and wallowing in its own political dysfunction, I spent last week in the midst of some 3,000 movers and shakers representing the municipal movement on a world-wide scale. These city leaders and professional staff from national municipal associations were gathered in Rabat, Morocco for the World Summit of Local and Regional Leaders organized by United Cities and Local Governments (UCLG).

The difference between what’s going on in Washington, D.C. and the stories that city leaders from around the word shared in Rabat could not have been more profound. In Rabat, leading city officials from Metro Vancouver, British Columbia discussed how to achieve a goal of zero solid waste output while down the corridor Guangzhou, China shared information from their Urban Innovation Institute and representatives from Quito, Ecuador reported on the 74 percent of residents using public transport each day.

By contrast, the news from Capitol Hill, in the world’s wealthiest nation with one of the oldest written constitutions, Members of Congress could only achieve consensus on the culpability of the other guy in the failure to adopt measures to keep the government open.

In the Congress, no real solutions were being offered, no practical compromises reached, and no acknowledgement of the need to serve the common good were put forth. Worst of all, no leadership was being demonstrated by elected Representatives in a country that still purports to be the best example of republican democracy the world has ever known. Looking back across the Atlantic Ocean some half-a-world away, I had no explanation that I could offer to all the delegates who wanted to know how the U.S. government could have reached this state of utter disappointment.

But to end the story here would be a terrible waste. Because this story has a genuinely happy ending.

In the face of many dysfunctional national governments all over the world, cities are leading! The small City of Almere, Netherlands (pop. 30,000), part of the wealthy Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD) block, is building one of the most sophisticated traffic management systems using GPS technology and a city-wide fiber optic network.

In the global south, there is a mutuality of support and information sharing that feeds the aspirations of Kenyans in Mombasa, Columbians in Bogota, and Chileans in Santiago. At the hyper-local level, at the regional level, and at the global level, city officials are exercising creativity and innovation to solve problems and to improve the quality of life for residents. Sometimes they are acting alone and sometimes they act in partnership with the private sector or a combination of grass-roots community groups.

The important thing however is that these city officials are taking some risks and exercising real leadership. It’s a wonder to behold and a privilege to participate in such a process.

While it may be trite to say that the world is small and growing smaller, one cannot ignore that for a few days in Rabat, representatives from cities serving half the world’s population exercised a commonality of vision, a unity of purpose, and a clarity of judgment that crossed dozens of languages and cultures all toward one universal end – making life better on a small patch of land called “home.” I cannot help but be impressed by the success that can be achieved when Cities Lead!

Brooks, J.A. 2010

About the Author: James Brooks is NLC’s Program Director for Community Development and Infrastructure and is also responsible for leading the International Programs.  Follow Jim on Twitter @JamesABrooks.