Welcome to week #5 of the Cookingham Connection. Today, we hear from Scott Lazenby, the city manager of Lake Oswego, Oregon. Most notably, Mr. Lazenby was a key mentor in the founding of ELGL, providing essential support and guidance to its founders, who are huge fans of “Playing With Fire.”
Guidepost #5: Be as humble as the humblest with whom you deal, and subdue by your patience those who are inclined to be arrogant. You must give as much time as is necessary to the person who is slow in understanding, and you must be patient with those who may be impatient with you.
Jim Collins (Good to Great) describes “Level 5 leaders” as those who blend “extreme personal humility with intense professional will.” Collins observes that these kinds of leaders were at the helm of every company he studied that made the transition from a good organization to a great (and highly profitable) organization.
If that’s true for the for-profit private sector, I think it’s even more true for the professionals who lead and manage our local governments. A friend and colleague, Jerry Gillham (now city manager of Sutherlin, OR) faced a challenging recovery from physical wounds and psychological trauma arising from his active military duty. He shared with a group of us that in this process he had an epiphany where he realized that “it isn’t about me,” but instead, the important thing is serving the community and supporting staff in their work. That realization, he said, has made him be a better manager.
“Subdue by your patience those who are inclined to be arrogant.” In my 35 years in city management, I’ve encountered folks who have been arrogant (and obnoxious, unreasonable, demanding, hysterical, paranoid, and a long list of less-than-endearing qualities). The nice thing about patience is I’ve outlasted all of those people. The gadfly who you think will be a thorn in your side forever eventually loses interest, or moves. This only works if you refuse to engage in a fight. Smother them with kindness, and they’ll eventually take the fight somewhere else. But don’t be smug about this strategy: just as one trouble-maker disappears from the scene, another will appear. It must be a law that nature abhors a conflict-free vacuum.
Serving those who don’t seem to deserve it
The last part of Cookingham’s guidepost goes beyond taking the high road in our interactions with people. The true test of a public service ethic is whether we are willing to serve, unconditionally, those who don’t really seem to deserve it.
A city manager I know shared this story. A resident received a water shutoff notice, and felt she shouldn’t have to pay the $25 fee to have her water turned back on because she was a single mother and recently unemployed. Each staff person she talked to expressed sympathy and concern, offered payment plans to give her time to get her bill current, and also explained that that the shutoff fee reflected a real cost incurred by the city when the public works crew member had to make a special trip to shut off and turn on the water service. In each case, the customer’s response was to scream and swear at the staff member, including the city manager when she had exhausted the available list of other staff to berate.
After receiving his own tongue-lashing, the city manager walked over to the utility billing department, pulled out his wallet and gave $25 of his own money to the customer service representative to credit to the woman’s account. “Don’t do that,” the staff member said in horror. “You’ll only encourage her behavior.” The city manager replied that, first, we really can’t change human behavior very easily; second, it’s not our job to make our customers become better people; and finally, as unpleasant as she was, the resident did seem to find herself in a financial bind. At the same time, the city manager didn’t want to undermine that staff member’s position on requiring payment of the shutoff fee.
Obviously, the city manager would have gone broke doing this kind of thing for everyone. But he felt it was a way of modeling the attitude he wanted to see in his staff.