“We’re in a period of time in which you don’t recognize, necessarily, your own footprints. But truly, there is an indelible mark you’re leaving. And you have a choice in how you leave that mark.” — Soo Ing-Moody, former mayor of Twisp, on civic leadership, 2020.
As civic skies darken, I increasingly keep an eye peeled for the steppers.
It’s my nickname for those brave souls, blessed be they, who respond to crisis not by shrinking back, but stepping up.
“Crisis” might seem a severe term to describe the current state of global decay in civility, hope and resolve. But it seems fitting given circumstances.
Back to those steppers.
Over many years in journalism, I’ve had the privilege of meeting many and coming to know a few personally. I’ve surely never treated their mettle with the respect it deserves until now.
Just as telling the truth in an age of misinformation is a radical act (thanks, and RIP, Tom Wolfe), stepping into public office in a time of orchestrated societal chaos might qualify as civic heroism. Over the past two years, I’ve walked into every “Citizens Agenda” interview with a baseline of mad respect for anyone willing to raise their hand and pound in a yard sign.
Who would want to take the abuse that comes with those jobs today? That’s the notion I carry into the first month of a new year marked by folks stepping up to take an oath to serve.
Two in our midst are sliding into key jobs: mayor of Bellingham, and the head honcho at the Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office, to name the most obvious. They’re the kind of easy-target jobs that have devolved at times into beleaguered Department of Complaints outposts — a fog that makes sparking creative leadership change fraught. No easy task.
But fresh faces also are arriving at the doors and desks of countless other, equally important, smaller offices — leadership positions in schools, civic organizations, churches and other places.
Here’s to each and every one of you; best of luck in a time when you surely will need it.
We could leave it there but let’s go a little further. In recent weeks it occurred to me to reach out to some of the better steppers in my Rolodex (kids, ask your grandparents) to pick their mental pockets for loose pieces of lessons learned.
I had the pleasure of some face time with one of them last month. At a retirement sendoff at Blue Star, the local coffee roaster, I watched with interest as one of those standout leaders, Soo Ing-Moody, the outgoing mayor of Twisp, Okanogan County, stood before a hundred or more local townsfolk and threw the admiration in the room for her years of successful civic duty right back at them.
“Community,” Moody told the crowd, which she was about to thank for its own, critical role, “is not a given.”
Words that define our time.
I came to know Moody as a 2020 profile subject in The Seattle Times. The story detailed the accident-of-history arrival of a Canadian woman of Asian heritage in a small, sideways-if-not-backwards burg on the Methow River. Her leadership of the town through a series of horrific wildfires — and then the COVID-19 pandemic — is the stuff that makes one believe in fate.
After committing a dozen years sending the town on a new, better course, a sense of community not only intact, but emboldened, she’s decided to move on. Wherever her leadership skills are next applied, I expect to see an impact crater.
So I asked her: If you were injecting yourself, with little experience, into civic life in America today, what would be your guiding principles? She was happy to share, even while dodging blizzards on Cascade passes this week:
1. “Be clear, honest and transparent when communicating intentions and managing expectations.”
2. “Be realistic on what you will do and how long it may take to do it (be sure to include consideration for staff capability and limited financial/staff resources).”
3. “Be inclusive and balanced when solving complex community issues; diverse representation is critical and important to achieving the best outcomes while balanced representation will ensure that inclusivity does not come at the expense of productivity or progress.”
Political success, of course, lies in the details of managing people. Successful organizations are fueled by the energy of buy-in. It’s not always easy to find, or restock, Moody knows.
“Changing administrative leadership can be difficult on professional staff and trust needs to be earned which requires clear and sincere communication,” she noted. “This is essential for the development of a productive team. The best leaders know to listen to staff before making external promises so as to best determine how to align both internal capabilities with external expectations.”
She made it work in Twisp, a town of fewer than 1,000 that nonetheless serves as a microcosm of the millions swirling about in a troubled U.S. society writ large. She left a place moving forward on a corrected course, with established practices and a smoother path for those willing to step up next.
Would she do it differently if starting over? Not really. “I knew there was much to learn and simply started by listening,” Moody said.
Beyond that comes the oft-ignored, but critical, task of self-preservation. It matters not only for the long term, but short.
“I think it is important to be responsive to issues or concerns by not reacting to them,” Moody said. “To be able to distinguish between the two requires a clear head and open heart — for me, that usually meant doing something physical, preferably outdoors, like a ski, bike, hike or run. Creating that space, breathing in fresh air and experiencing the outdoors gave me perspective and grounding.”
See the wisdom there: Don’t let the strain of standing up and pushing forward sweep your legs from beneath you. Stepping up requires both a strong connection to the ground and the energy to drive forward. Not everyone has it; let’s celebrate those who do, and support those who might.
Ron Judd’s column appears on Fridays; firstname.lastname@example.org; @roncjudd.