Against the Grain

Posted on June 9, 2023

A stylized depiction of white arrows against a red backdrop. A single gold arrow points to the right while the red arrows point to the left.

This guest article is by ELGL member Matt Hirschinger, Colorado local government and DEI professional. Read all of Matt’s other articles at the Social Justice –> Government homepage.

With just a few more Social Justice -> Local Government posts left, I want to take a moment to discuss some of the conclusions I’ve reached that go against the grain. Of course, to a degree social justice acts against the grain of the status quo, analyzes, critiques, and offers ways we can better serve people tomorrow than we are today. This time though, when I say against the grain, I mean in contrast to other forward-thinking, progressive, help-those-in-need philosophies. The following are three things that I disagree with people whom I otherwise likely share similar values and goals.

#1 Leadership is Amoral

Popular opinion: True leadership is working for others, servant-leadership is the only real leadership.

There are many valid definitions of leadership. My personal favorite comes from the bestselling “Leadership Challenge” that describes leadership as a relationship. It helps make sense when someone says “X isn’t MY President” or “management is the opposite of leadership!” What they are saying is that they are rejecting the relationship. We then make the error that because we personally reject someone leading us, that therefore they are not a leader period.

A leader needs those who follow. It can be people other than us who follow.

For example, we celebrate when a CEO is found to be racist, or toxic, or greedy, or all of the above and loses their job. We point to their downfall as a sign that they weren’t real leaders. I disagree. I think these CEOs lasted years, even decades with people following them and spreading their problematic leadership across an entire organization before eventually after lots of influence, money, and prestige they finally are ousted, sometimes to find another organization to lead.

In the struggle to promote social justice, we do ourselves a disservice to underestimate leadership that stands in opposition to equity and inclusion efforts. We set ourselves up to be caught off guard if we think surely no one will take someone in a position of power seriously because we individually don’t take them seriously. It is the real potential of immoral leadership that should ignite our passion to promote leadership that is more genuine, more empathetic, more willing to reach out and listen to the voiceless.

Inspiring people, tapping into their values and interests, organizing them, offering vision and an end goal… these aspects of leadership can help or harm, can bring us together or divide us. True leadership then is the ability to get people to follow. We have to then be leaders, and on top of this aspire to be leaders who fight for social justice.

#2 Public Service is not Inherently Noble

Popular opinion: By working for local governments we’re committed to the public good, we sacrifice by having a smaller paycheck compared to our private sector counterparts.

Similar to the last point, I agree that as public servants we should be committed to the people. I have read and heard too many examples past and present to believe that simply by working in the public sector we are doing good. From planning and land use barring affordable housing, to local ordinances passed that punish those most in need, to red tape being used tactically to stall efforts at reform… government, including local government, is only on the right side of history when we actively work towards it.

But are those people responsible for creating barriers, disenfranchising people, REAL public servants? Yes. I would argue so. It is too easy, too simple to dismiss such actions and turn a blind eye if we claim that they’re not with us, they’re local government professionals in name only and we don’t have to associate ourselves with the problematic parts of the institutions we belong to.

If our goal is to create better local government, then part of that must be to contend with the things we don’t agree with, that offend us, that disturb us. If we only celebrate the good parts, then we’re bound to run victory laps for winning a race we refused to partake in. This isn’t to say we can’t be proud of all the good, only that we should temper it with the work that still needs to be done.

As a final note I would also be careful about comparing ourselves to our private sector counterparts. A lot of good work that helps people can be done by people outside the public sector too. If we are going to claim any moral high ground over things like being paid less, I’d say we should triple check if we’re accomplishing more, and I’d also reflect on if having lower pay is something we should be championing as a sign of how altruistic we are.

#3 Challenge the Rules

Popular opinion: We’re implementing best practices, doing what other communities have done, have policies and procedures that have served us well.

Our rules, processes, system, structures, expectations, etc. rarely have good recordkeeping, and so on the surface it appears that the rules we adhere to, are meant to uphold, are more set in stone, are more timeless than they really are. The rules were written by people in our positions. The rules have subsequently been changed and/or reinforced by people in our position over time. It’s our turn now.

Yes, we have an obligation to follow our codes, and charters, and laws, and employee manuals. We do not have an obligation to accept them blindly, to not question and challenge them when we discover problems. The easy road is to accept things as they are and do our job. The better path is to take responsibility and do our part to bring up inconsistencies, inequities, things that are outdated, and things that should never have been implemented in the first place.

It is perhaps the greatest trick we bureaucrats have told ourselves that we only carry out the rules given, that we serve objectively. Nonsense. We do far more. We interpret ambiguous laws and rules, we offer recommendations and revisions, we prioritize projects from highest to lowest, and very often we are in charge of developing the rules from concept to reality. Of course, we have our own checks and balances as we should. This does not mean we have no control.

And too often we rely on the work of other communities without asking the hard questions. I’m all for sharing best ideas, and part of that is taking ownership. “Other communities are doing it” is one of the strongest arguments, encouraging people to hop on the bandwagon is marketing 101. It’s still on us to be critical and accept full responsibility of the results, to not assume because it worked for one community it works for us, to not assume that said other community took everything into consideration they should have and therefore we don’t need to.


It is easy to challenge the perceptions and beliefs of those we disagree with. I strongly recommend to spend as much time if not more on reflecting on the common tenets that we ourselves follow. It’s the latter where we’ll find more opportunities to grow. It’s where I’ve personally found I’ve been able to learn and evolve.

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