To Be An Effective Leader, Be a Lifelong Learner

“It was clear to me that I could have great policy ideas and a keen grasp of budgeting, but if I didn’t develop key leadership skills, I would never be able to lead my colleagues, my constituents, or my city forward.”

Clarence Anthony welcomes city leaders from across the nation to NLC’s 2015 Congress of Cities in Washington, D.C. (photo: Jason Dixson)

This post originally appeared in the newsletter of the Colorado Municipal League.

When people hear that I was elected mayor of South Bay, Florida at age 24, they often comment that successfully running for office at such a young age must have been difficult.

“No,” I tell them. “Getting elected was the easy part. Governing was the hard part.”

I am fortunate that the skills it took to get elected came naturally to me. But governing required a different set of skills. Some skills were operational, such as budgeting and planning. Others skills were more policy-oriented. I have a master’s degree in public administration, and I specialized in city growth management, so my education provided me with many of the basic skills I would need to govern.

Once in office, however, I realized that it would take more than an understanding of policy, budgeting and planning to succeed. It would take leadership.

I quickly learned that the most important skills for an elected official – communication, vision, building trust, leading change and collaboration – were personal and organizational skills. It was clear to me that I could have great policy ideas and a keen grasp of budgeting, but if I didn’t develop those key leadership skills, I would never be able to lead my colleagues, my constituents, or my city forward.

Armed with this new realization, I immediately turned to my State League (the Florida League of Cities), the National League of Cities (NLC), and NLC University (NLCU, formerly known as the Leadership Training Institute). Then, as now, NLCU’s courses provided invaluable leadership development skills that I utilized and applied in my professional and personal life. I highly recommend these courses for all elected officials. They are offered online, as pre-conference sessions at both of our annual conferences, or at our Annual Leadership Summit.

One of the most important tenets of leadership I’ve learned in my career is that leadership is a mindset and practice that is applicable to all facets of life, not just one’s professional life. Other mayors and councilmembers have shared stories with me over the years about how they, too, have leveraged their leadership competencies and behaviors to achieve great outcomes in a variety of endeavors.

For so many of our members, the role of elected official is but one of several roles they play. Our members are also dentists, architects, farmers and small business owners, as well as parents, spouses and coaches. In each of these roles, they are expected to be leaders. NLCU educational sessions help them develop behaviors and skills that enable them be better leaders and achieve greater success in all of the roles they play.

I’ve also come to realize that being a leader means recognizing that the process of learning and development never ends. There is always new information to be gained, and there are always new insights to be discovered. As the great management theorist and author Peter Drucker once said, “Knowledge has to be improved, challenged, and increased constantly – or it vanishes.”

As an elected official, I felt that it was my responsibility to my constituents to be a learner – constantly improving, challenging and increasing my knowledge so that it did not vanish. I trust you feel the same way.

Learning of course, takes many shapes; it encompasses more than just engaging in formal classroom education. In fact, most leadership researchers agree that the ratio of formal learning opportunities available (workshops, seminars, classes) to informal learning opportunities (self-study, mentorships, networking, on-the-job experiences, problem solving and feedback) is somewhere around 1:4.

This is not to say that formal learning opportunities are not important. In fact, a formal education is the essential building block of a larger education that is complimented by all types of informal learning opportunities. Informal learning involves applying what was learned in the formal learning setting. It also involves learning from one’s peers, and learning about and incorporating best practices and creative ideas. The National League of Cities and NLCU are essential partners in helping our members become lifelong learners ­– and thus, more effective local leaders – through both formal and informal learning.

Our members are exposed to the best in-depth research on cities, courtesy of our City Solutions and Applied Research department. In addition, when our members attend NLCU offerings, they take the formal knowledge they’ve acquired for an informal “test drive,” sharing it with their peers and discussing possible applications outside the classroom that can lead to best practices. Armed with a wealth of knowledge that has been acquired in many different ways, our members apply that knowledge to their roles in their professional and personal lives, leading to better outcomes for their communities and citizens.

The National League of Cities has a number of strategic goals, one of which is to “expand the capacity of city officials to serve as ethical, effective and engaged leaders.” It is a goal born of belief and experience – belief in the power of leadership to transform individuals, organizations and communities, and the experience that comes from constantly learning and consistently applying the mindset and practice of leadership to governing.

About the Author: Clarence E. Anthony is the CEO & Executive Director of the National League of Cities. Follow him on Twitter @ceanthony50.