L. P. Cookingham, one of the deans in the local government management profession, set forth his philosophy of management for the guidance of younger administrators in a 1956 PM article.
Mr. Cookingham served for three decades as a city manager and was president of ICMA in 1940. Here are his guideposts, which are as relevant today as they were in 1956.
- Never forget that the council, to the best of its ability, expresses the will of the people. There will be times when you will not understand why the council takes certain actions, but you will find that the council is generally right, and the members express public opinion as they see it and as they learn it from their constituents.
- Formal acts of the council become public policy, and you as city manager must always do your best to translate these policies into action. You should do this in a manner to best realize the intent of the council. In some cases, you may not agree with the policy, but it is your duty as city manager to carry out the policy to the best of your ability unless it is illegal or fraudulent.
- You have to “give and take” all along the way, but when you must give ground to the “left,” be sure that when you return toward the center you go to the “right” as far as possible. In “giving,” never do anything that may be illegal or that is contrary to the basic principles of the plan of government with which you are working.
- Remember that the average fellow with whom you talk, whether he is a member of the council, one of the city’s staff, or a citizen, does not know as much about the job of municipal administration as you know now or will know in the years ahead; so don’t get too far beyond him, for he will not be able to follow you.
- 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.
- Lead those whom you contact—members of the council, subordinate employees, and citizens—into the proper channel by tactful suggestio n rather than by too persuasive argument. Make them feel that they have had a major part in making the decisions and in establishing the policies that you deem to be in the best interest of the individual and the government.
- Don’t let any problems frighten you, for there is a logical solution to each one you have to face. If they seem too tough for today, let them go until tomorrow whenever possible, for then they will seem simpler. The problems that concern you today may be completely forgotten in a week or two.
- Treat everyone in the city, friend or foe, as if your success depended on the manner in which you handled his problem. I have often told my employees to consider everyone with whom they talk to be a member of the city council, and by doing this, they will give their best to all.
- Get acquainted with your employees as rapidly as possible, and take time to let them show you what they have in their departments and how they do their work. (If you do not approve, go slowly in making drastic changes. The results will be much better and the improvements more lasting.)
- Give credit where credit belongs and always give the council all the credit you can. They have to be reelected.
- Never forget that you are a servant of the people, and instill that philosophy in each of your employees. If you find one who cannot understand this philosophy, remove him for he will be no good to you or the city. If you ever get the idea that you are ruler, you, also, will be no good to the city or to the form of government.
- Work hard to gain and keep the full confidence of the council and the respect of your department heads, and your job will be easier. The confidence of the council is of utmost importance in doing a successful job.
- Don’t let the “cranks” worry you too much, for if you do they will outlive you.
- Be sure to develop good press relations and give all the time necessary to help the press, radio, and other media to keep the public informed, because any one of these media can ruin your program with very little effort.
- Keep your eyes and ears open and your mouth shut during council meetings. This is one of the most important principles in the field of council-manager relations. I have known more managers who have talked themselves out of jobs than into jobs. The members of the council are elected by the people and know something about the business of municipal government. When they want information from the manager, they will ask him for it, and it is well to have the information when requested.
- Don’t pursue your program at a faster pace than the council, the employees, and public can follow. You will always see plenty of things to do and have plenty of changes to make but be sure that everyone understands why you are doing this and how it will benefit the city or its government before you proceed.
- Never put in writing anything you can’t prove. Someday someone might embarrass you with it.
- Always take the chip off the complainant’s shoulder before you let him go. This will be a hard task in some cases, but use every resource at your command to make friends out of potential enemies.
- Always remember that you will never get in trouble or be embarrassed by doing what is right. You may lose your job for standing up for what you think is right, but you‘ll always get another and better job. Besides, you will be able to sleep soundly every night.
- Keep up your personal contacts with other city managers. The greatest compliment you can pay them is to ask how they handle a certain problem.
- Always think of the city in which you work as your city. Participate in civic movements for its betterment and, above all, live in your city.
- Keep a framed copy of “The City Manager’s Code of Ethics” in your office. Read it once in awhile. Always abide by it.
Source: Public Management (PM) magazine, February 1975, pages 20–21.