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Labor Management
Council of Greater KC
Leadership Program

September 28, 2010

This welcome speech was written for Jackson County Executive Mike Sanders.

Thank you. I am honored that you would include me as part of your itinerary tonight as the Mid-Level Leadership Program, now a quarter-of-a-century old, begins a new session. I was delighted to accept the Labor-Management Council’s invitation to be here, and I’m excited to learn of the council’s decision to develop an advanced version of the Mid-Level Leadership Program for 2011.

I know how successful the program has been, having worked closely with some of its graduates. Anita Maltbia—just to name one—played a crucial role, soon after I became County Executive, in my administration’s efforts to reform County government, and today she now heads up the Green Zone project that’s seeking to create new jobs through implementing innovative environmental enhancements throughout Greater Kansas City.

Anita is only one of the many great leaders to successfully graduate from this program.

I thought I would start this evening by looking at that word leadership—by examining what it means. Usually whenever I’m asked to speak, I’ll turn to history for inspiration—specifically to another Jackson County elected official, from the 1920s and early ’30s. I turn to former Jackson County Presiding Judge Harry S. Truman, who would later flex his leadership muscles as President of the United States.

Harry S. TrumanBut I’m not exactly sure I wholeheartedly agree with Harry this time, though. He once said, “I learned that a great leader is a man who has the ability to get other people to do what they don’t want to do and like it.”

I’m not sure if he was entirely serious when saying that, but I think his point was that leaders move those around them to take action. They don’t push. They don’t shove. They—through their own words and actions—to move those around them to act.

The greatest leaders inspire. The good ones all seek to empower those they lead—to give them the freedom to step forward and just not follow.

Too often, however, I think people who find themselves in leadership roles believe they must always be the one—and only one—out front. That to be a leader, they must bark orders. They must command! They tend, I’m sorry to say, to lead through negative reinforcement. They resort to saying, “Because I said so.”

How often have people been told during these difficult economic times, “Just be thankful you’ve still got a job”? Is that any way to get those people to do the best job they are capable of? I don’t think so. Creating a fear-based atmosphere doesn’t challenge people; it intimidates them. Instead of bringing out their best, it causes them to hold back—play it safe. They don’t try to stand out because that involves putting themselves at risk.

As Theodore Roosevelt pointed out there’s a difference between being a boss and being a leader. “The leader works in the open, and the boss in cover,” he said. “The leader leads, and the boss drives.”

I think another way to put that might be: Bosses create an environment in which you are working for them. Leaders create an environment in which you are working with them. And not just working with them to get a job done, but to make things better.

While Truman is best known for his bluntness, his decisiveness, his “give-them-hell” fierceness, he was at heart an optimist. He believed that no problem could not be solved, that we had a capacity to improve what he called the “general welfare” and raise the standard of living of every man, woman and child. One of my favorite Truman quote has become one that I think reflects what made him such a brilliant leader, “A pessimist is one who makes difficulties of his opportunities and an optimist is one who makes opportunities of his difficulties.”

I know that is the approach I’ve tried to take in my nearly four years now as Jackson County Executive.

These have, no doubt, been difficult times. We had to cut the budget just to get through that first year in 2007—and we’ve been cutting it ever since. But we’ve seized this opportunity to make local government more efficient and responsive.

In many ways, I think Jackson County has been able to lead the way in recent years. We’ve established a new ethics code, opened a regional correctional center that represents a new era of cooperation between city and country governments, and we’ve reformed our COMBAT anti-drug program, which is a model for the rest of the nation to follow as they “combat” illegal drugs as both a public health crisis and law enforcement issue.

As County Executive I’ve taken another page from Teddy Roosevelt’s book in that I have, as he advised, picked good people to do the jobs I want done and have tried—in Roosevelt’s words—to have the “self-restraint to keep from meddling with them while they do their jobs.”

I’m most proud of the fact that at Jackson County we haven’t been content to stand still, when making progress requires moving forward. It’s the pessimists who are saying right now, “Hopefully, we can just get by and things won’t get worse.”

The other President Roosevelt, FDR, once declared that during difficult times doing nothing isn’t an option. He spoke of trying something to solve a problem—to make things better—and if that something doesn’t work, candidly admit it’s not working. Then try something else.

Sadly, too many leaders believe they can’t admit a mistake, which just perpetuates that mistake. That’s stubbornness. That’s pride. That’s not leadership. As JFK once said, “Leadership and learning are indispensable to each other.”

So, to lead is be perpetually learning—never, ever thinking you and you alone have all the answers. And it’s challenging people, not ordering them around or coddling them.

One of Truman’s greatest leadership qualities was his willingness to “tell it like it is” and to take unpopular stands because he believed in the long-term he was doing what was right—even it meant doing harm to his short-term political fortunes. Truman introduced the first major civil rights bill since reconstruction, desegregated the armed forces, organized NATO, and in the face of growing anti-communism hysteria spoke out against McCarthyism, saying, “The Un-American Activities Committee is the most un-American activity in the whole government.”

These were all unpopular stands for him to take at the time, but we are all familiar with his story of leaving the White House with near-record-low approval numbers and now, today, being widely consider one of the greatest leaders of the 20th Century.

It’s sad that in the 38 years since President Truman died that he is sometimes reduced to being a caricature: The no nonsense straight-shooter, always “givin’ ’em hell.” The comeback kid.

How many politicians have wanted to claim the mantle of being the “next Harry S. Truman”?

It’s not that simple—and I mean that in every since of the word. Anyone who’s really studied his history understands Harry S. Truman was a complex man—a man who may have been decisive but always put a lot of thought into his decisions.

The great leaders, I believe, all share that trait—of being thoughtful. They think their decisions through. They know how to empathize with those they lead. They not only speak, but they listen. They have a vision, and if they can’t see a clear path that will lead to fulfilling that vision, they will as Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “Go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.”

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