For four years the Kansas Leadership Center has engaged Kansans in discussions and deep learning about civic leadership. No surprise, but Kansans want more. They have told us that they understand that leadership is difficult and is not always the best way to be or remain popular but that it is necessary particularly in these times.
These Kansans have described to us some of the behaviors they think are necessary for exercising leadership on the toughest issues facing the state. It’s too early to predict success, but Governor-elect Sam Brownback has been modeling three of those behaviors. And we all can learn something for our own leadership by taking note of them.
• A focus on the big, daunting issues
Kansans told us that too often elected officials kick the biggest, most daunting issues down the road for someone else to address because there is no way to make progress on them without compromise and loss.
Brownback seems to be trying to force the tough issues into the center of our civic conversation. During tough budget times like these, public officials try to find incremental savings by “looking in every nook and cranny.” There is nothing wrong with that, but Brownback repeatedly has said in various news reports the state budget is not structurally sound. Squeezing savings here and there will not address the more fundamental problem. It will take tremendous leadership to mobilize legislators and the public to act on the big cost drivers in the budget such as education and Medicaid.
• Willingness to disappoint your own people
Leadership is often about disappointing your own people at a rate they can absorb.
Brownback has been described as the first conservative governor in Kansas in 50 years but recently made clear, again in news reports, that he doesn’t think we should repeal the recently passed penny sales tax increase. His conservative stakeholders were surprised and disappointed. After all, the sales tax increase was passed by a coalition of moderate Republicans and Democrats. It received few conservative votes.
I’m guessing two things were driving Brownback. First, he realizes the state faces another massive budget shortfall and repealing the penny increase could just make matters worse. Second, and I think more important, Brownback understands that repealing the penny increase may feel good in the short run for conservative lawmakers, but will complicate the more difficult, more enduring task of reworking the tax code to make it more economic friendly.
• Engaging across boundaries
Kansans have also have told us that leadership requires engaging across boundaries, collaborating with people who do not represent the same perspective, values or priorities.
During his recent appearance at the Kansas African American Museum’s “Tribute to Trailblazers” event, Brownback discussed race in powerful and personal ways. Brownback didn’t simply attend the event.
He served as an honorary co-chair.
He’d won the governor’s race handily and without much African American support. He didn’t have to attend the event, let alone co-chair it, let alone make such compelling remarks. Reaching across boundaries in this way is a leadership behavior.
During his remarks, he discussed his Senatorial work to bring an African American History museum to the mall in Washington, D.C. He explained how our state’s African American history remains inextricably bound to Kansas and American history. Lastly, he shared how he’d once written legislation calling for an official apology to African Americans for their treatment in this country.
A colleague who was there felt Brownback’s words will linger in the minds of the audience for years as he spoke eloquently and reached out to people who were not part of his core constituency.
No one can know for sure whether Brownback’s connecting with African-Americans or his willingness to disappoint some of his most fervent followers or his keeping our focus on the biggest, toughest issues will help us Kansans deal with the most difficult challenges we face. But it is a promising and hopeful start, and all Kansans who care about the state should welcome these new beginnings and engage in the journey in whatever ways are available to them.