I sat transfixed as a group of elected leaders – half of whom were newly elected – discussed how they would work with each other and the local government administration. There were some truly sacred moments where the dialog was honest, open, and fresh. These were moments that will need to be remembered as they decide on policies and how to spend the public’s money that has been entrusted to them.
They talked about their roles and responsibilities and those of the administration who will be expected to carry out the policies set by the elected officials. They listened to each other and agreed on some fundamentals that had the potential to create sound decisions in the face of personal agendas and competing interests. They made a substantial list of behaviors that they promised to exhibit toward each other in their work together. And they created a list of important topics that needed to be addressed even as the revenues to accomplish them have been shrinking. The risk of falling back on squabbling, defensiveness, and power plays in light of limited resources is all too possible.
They talked about the importance of the good kind of conflict to help them make the best decisions. They learned together about recognizing the early warning signs of the type of conflict that has the ability to wound, and how to turn it in the right direction for the greater good. They learned how to give constructive feedback to each other and agreed that they needed to assure that positive feedback and expressing points of agreement in a debate were needed.
Will they stay true?
I wonder if they will be able to stay true to the commitments they’ve made to work together when the going gets tough. Will they decide that their narrow individual promises made during the election will take a back seat when the greater good must be served? Can their interpersonal relationships remain as strong as they did in that relaxed setting when all to soon the limits of resources available become clear?
It’s a vicious cycle, when debate creeps into the ugly realm, with words meant to wound and grasps at power become the norm. It makes it harder to remember the commitments made on that day when things were new and fresh; when the future made everything seem possible. They came into the conversation with the intent to serve on behalf of their constituents; an honorable thing that gets lost sometimes when tempers flare.
I observed several leaders in the room with passion to the importance of maintaining relationships. These are the ones who will come forward to remind the group of the sacred commitments they made to stay civil if the discourse turns ugly. When things heat up because of limited funds, or when the needs of some constituents have to be set aside in order to serve the whole, it’s the leaders who will urge collaboration. I’m looking forward to seeing how the year progresses for them.