Saturday, September 27, 2014

Servant leadership or media tart? What decides the tick on the ballot paper?

Now if you’re a candidate for local government, a fair bit of your time will be spent pestering the media.  Don’t despair if you’re not getting anywhere.  My early attempts at media releases rarely hit the jackpot in getting some column inches.  You can spend quite a bit of time polishing up a media release, for it to never be printed or a radio interview to materialise.  Some people have a knack for it, and seriously, they end up as Press Officers/Communications lobbyists.  The rest of us struggle on.

In between elections, it’s been head down and bottom up in getting on with local government stuff and these days the press release goes the way of all flesh in the decision of whether to add to the wastepaper bin at the local newspaper desk, or use the time more wisely.  Usually I just get on and do, because inevitably the media wait until the Council decision and then it’s the Mayor getting the calls and column inches anyway as “council spokesperson”.

What I’ve learnt is that the most important messages I’ve written have been the 100 words for the candidate statement each election.  These words go into the house of every voter at election time.  It’s a far better result than most other media, with the TEC logo being the golden ticket past the No Junk Mail on the letterbox.  You can tell a lot about a person’s style of leadership from the candidate statement.

If I might diverge a bit, after one particularly busy week of meetings at Council and out in the community, a local came up and asked if I was still on the Council, they hadn’t seen me in the newspaper lately, and thought I wasn’t doing anything.  I smiled quietly to myself and answered politely, yes I was still on Council and no, I really wasn’t comfortable being a media tart.  It had been a week when a few local government people had been behaving in a way not exactly edifying with their antics grabbing a few column inches. 

As one prominent conservative business leader said rather succinctly today, the only people you read about in the Tasmania media are whingers.  If Tasmania has problems, in his opinion, it’s because of the way the media portray the place.  Bad news, conflict, feral antics, human error and general all round whinging makes for media, not the good news stories.  You never heard the good stories.

All of which brings me back to the headline of this post.  Harking back to one of the eulogies at Tuesday’s funeral for Launceston’s Alderman Jeremy Ball, the comment was made that Jeremy personified servant leadership rather than the drive for ego-driven prestige and power so common in the murk of Tasmanian politics.  Jeremy was that rarest of leaders, a servant leader who consulted widely, who mentored others, who sought out the leadership possibilities in others.  The stuff that often rarely made it into the media but made for a better community.  The effect of Jeremy’s leadership was all around us, with Launceston’s Albert Hall packed to the rafters with people celebrating his life of service to the city and his fellow humans.

And that comment got me thinking about the hundreds of candidate statements that are going to be written, the accompanying pamphlets, the posters, the slogans, the media releases, in these local government elections.  Just what sort of leadership styles will dominate?  What will people choose?

In mentoring people running for local government, I try to get them to write 100 words about why they should get a vote.  It’s good practice.  It is perhaps the hardest 100 words (600 characters) that any candidate will ever write by the 29th of October.  If they do nothing else during the election, these 100 words will influence where the voting ratepayer places those 12 numbers.

(By the way, full points to the TEC for embracing social media by getting candidates to supply webmail/blog address as well as the usual mobile phone and email contacts, and allowing a candidate photo on the ballot material.  This time around, every candidate gets 600 character spaces and that includes spacing and punctuation, but no lists, no dot points to garner support from the voting ratepayer.)

600 character spaces to say why you qualify for their support.  I don’t know about you, but given candidates want to say so much, and have to condense it down so small, I figure most of us have sweated blood and irritated our nearest and dearest and bestest friends with the endless iterations. 

And how does the voting ratepayer make sense of it all?  One friend of mine works it out by eliminating anyone with lots of “I”, “I”’s, figuring they’re either on an ego trip or haven’t got out of the toddler demanding stage (a developmental stage best reserved for parliamentary politics where responsibility for what one says is protected by privilege).  First person, third person, past, present – nothing like a whole lot of I will, I shall, I think, I do, I’ve done, to get kicked off the shortlist.

Another judges by how much managerial bingo speak is present and eliminates candidates that way.  (You know the game, any more than five bits of managerial speak, and the cry of bingo! from the back of the boardroom is faintly heard.  Anyone using the words “proactive leadership” gets double demerit points.) 

Yet another sits down with every bit of written material on the candidates that can be found, and ask two questions.  Do the words sound sane, (which accordingly usually gets rid of around 50% of them) and what do they have in common with that person’s concerns and interests (and that does in around 40% of those left).  After that, it’s usually easy to fill out the form with a few circles and arrows after reading the paragraphs on each one.

And then there are those friends who, despairing at the choices to be made, ring me up in the late hours hoping I’m only half awake and not fully thinking by that time and ask what the people who have been elected are really like, compared to what their candidate statements say.  And thank God we don’t have the sort of phone hacking that went on in the UK in the Murdoch Press when I get these phone calls!

So here’s how I end up filtering all the candidate statements.  Because I vote too, and if I get re-elected, these are the people I’ll have to work with.

If the candidate’s 100 words use inclusive language, if you get the feeling that the person is grounded in their community, and genuinely wants to make some changes that benefit more than just one group, then put them on your shortlist. 

If you think that this reads like the sort of person you’d want to employ to work for you, put them on the shortlist.

If they sound open to change and don’t use obvious code words (“family values” is one that springs to mind) rather than being upfront in what they believe, put them on your shortlist.

It takes a bit of work sorting out if your choice of candidates will really represent what matters to you.  Local government elections attract all kinds.  From the media tarts, to those using local government as some sort of vindication of their politics or religion or personal beliefs, to those who see it as a career move up the political greasy pole.  And we have all sorts of ideas of what matters to us as well.

But if you think the 100 words are too good to be true, then think about these questions to ask, and phone them up for a chat to sound them out.  (Better still, if there are any candidate forums, try to get along and ask watch what happens when that person is under the stress of a public appearance.)  Do they think they are elected to make decisions for the community?  If they answer “yes”, ask what they think about consultation and when it is important.  And then ask them if they have ever relinquished a leadership position to mentor another?

This is where the servant leadership idea comes in.  Leaders often don’t have all the answers all the time and aren’t afraid to ask.  And often the best leaders look for others and encourage them before themselves. If your candidates are comfortable with these ideas, it’s a pretty good bet your local council will be in good hands.

Authorised by Eva Ruzicka, 10 Congress Street, South Hobart.

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