Kyle Knott is a senior at Northern Illinois University. He has worked at Village of Mukwonago, Wisconsin, Elk Grove Township, Illinois, and DeKalb County Business Incubator.
Driving back to work from a mid-winter regional administrator’s breakfast, I could not stop thinking about the question that has plagued me since my first summer internship at the Kankakee County, Illinois Chamber of Commerce during my freshman year of college. The question is, “What is the meaning of professionalism?”
My first exposure during that internship was terrifying. The environment looked stuffy, humdrum, and disingenuous. I was so dismayed that I wrote a letter to my university’s Department of Business because I feared my future would be plagued by the necessity of having to cater to my colleagues’ trivial and myopic ambitions – to have to play “the game”.
This trepidation was, in part, why I chose to pursue a career in city management. I wanted to be a community leader, to learn how to impact the lives of people, and to improve struggling communities like Detroit or Flint. I realized those communities are home to so many people, and the failure of community leadership means they must live a life characterized by avoidable anguish. At the same time, I wanted to remain apolitical.
My fear has subsided. I now work in an outstanding community that allows me to be myself, and I hold firmly that business, and therewith professionalism, is simply defined as “the process of developing authentic, positive relationships” and as such should not be characterized by the need to play “the game” but instead to treat people the way you want to be treated. Notwithstanding, I still haven’t settled this issue.
Recently, I was riding in the car with my boss when I revealed what I was brooding over, he answered in his matter-of-fact style,
‘“The way I see it, professionalism is something you shouldn’t worry yourself with. You go to these events, and you can choose to either be haystack or a needle – me, I’m a needle. The world has plenty of haystacks. You don’t want to be just another suit, do you?”
This was months ago, and since then this notion has been omnipresent every time I conjure the familiar qualm.
When I visit a municipality, attend a networking event, or reflect on my previous experiences in a professional work environment, I develop a general sense of isolation, almost a Marxist alienation or dysphoria. I feel like I’ve sacrificed a part of who I am to conform to a culture. Who I am is impassioned, idealistic, and excited about the opportunities to live a life and career of meaning and service to the world.
However, these experiences of professionalism offer a stark dichotomy. With offices that have nothing on the walls, the complaint-filled conversations, and the subtle exclusivity of developing a network, I am wondering, “Where’s the Leslie Knopes?! Where’s the fire?! Why are there so many Mark Brendanawiczs?!” In short, where is the authenticity, the art of who we are. It’s no mystery why the profession has such a difficult time attracting talent. The profession’s brand is wanting at the least.
Admittedly, I’m young. I’m graduating from Northern Illinois University this year, but I’ve taken several internships, and I have worked with diligence to understand what it means to be a community leader, and what it means to be a public administrator, because it’s my passion. I will be learning more about professionalism when I start graduate school at Northern Illinois University, and maybe my mind will change.
However, I doubt it.
Dr. Brené Brown, a remarkable storyteller and researcher on vulnerability at the University of Houston, says that “Authenticity is a collection of choices that we have to make every day. It’s about the choice to show up and be real. The choice to be honest. The choice to let our true selves be seen”. And, “Vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity and change”.
It would be a disservice to myself and to the profession if I chose not to speak with candor.
Again, John Stuart Mill in his great book On Liberty says,
But the peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.
I am okay with being wrong about my ideas regarding professionalism. Namely, that it is too often stodgy and fake. If we as community leaders are to be the greatest versions of ourselves, and if we are to inspire the next generation to join us in this important cause, we must speak the truth that is in our hearts and work to spur the imagination of the youth. I fear that the well-being of our democracy depends on it.