Local Leaders as Bridgebuilders: Learning from Exemplars

Back to Winter 2020: Volume 108, Number 4

By Thomas J. Barth

In his remarks at the American Society of Public Administration annual conference in 2017, former Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen noted the critical importance of leaders who can build relationships across sectors and levels of government in responding to natural disasters. When I asked him afterwards if he could name such bridgebuilding leaders today, he informed me that he could not think of any, going so far as to imply that we are in a leadership crisis in the country today. I heard similar sentiments expressed by Bob Gates, former Secretary of Defense and CIA Director, in remarks at UNC Charlotte in 2016.

As the director of a Public Administration program whose mission is to prepare future leaders for the government and nonprofit sectors, I wanted to dig deeper into the two cities where I live and work to discover if the same negativity about bridgebuilding leadership exists at the local level. This article is based on sixteen in-depth interviews with leaders identified as bridgebuilders by individuals in Charlotte and Wilmington, North Carolina. To identify these leaders, I consulted a range of individuals with extensive working knowledge and personal observation of bridgebuilders in action, including a former city manager, director of community relations for a local university, executive with the United Way, director of diversity and inclusion for county government, director of an airline government affairs office and former mayor chief of staff, a public administration professor, and an MPA alum now working in the real estate and economic development sector. These individuals were asked to identify leaders in the local government, nonprofit and business sectors who have demonstrated the ability to build coalitions across divided individuals and/or groups to address challenges or problems.

The sixteen subjects of these interviews cover local government, nonprofit and business sectors.  Questions focused on personal qualities and skills required of an effective bridgebuilder, with examples of projects where such leadership produced positive results. The following five key themes and examples emerged. 

Theme #1: Communication & Listening Skills
“You must understand what’s in the ground”
Local Bridgebuilder

The subtle art of communication and listening for effective bridgebuilding was a major theme in the interviews. One simple but important starting point is “just showing up” for tough conversations and being truly present when you are there (not on your cell phone). Several respondents commented on the ability to create a hospitable or safe environment where people feel comfortable that they will be respected for who they are; this is necessary to be able to examine the genuine roots of an issue that can lie beneath and be masked by surface discussions.

The effective use of humor to reduce tension was mentioned, as well as the ability to “read a room” and address sources of discomfort. One interview noted useful advice she was given to “use your eyes and ears more and your mouth less.” Other concrete advice was to constantly check on common understanding of language among participants, control your reaction to statements in a neutral manner, and resist the tendency to make assumptions about people who may be misinformed; rather, seek to have conversations that calmly lay out the impact of certain positions rather than dismiss or confront people who hold views that you believe are harmful.  Other key points raised in the interviews:

  • Articulate a thoughtful position using both verbal and written mediums
  • Practice the art of respectful debate
  • Force yourself to go on Youtube and hear other perspectives during an election or public discussions of contentious issues
  • Process information and present it back in a way that resonates with people
  • Provide the forum for discussion; folks want to help, but just don‘t know where to start
  • Find a common language among participants

The development of a new greenway system in a town provided an example of communication and listening skills. Citizens were very upset about the cost of the system and the taxes needed; they saw it strictly from this one narrow perspective. Staff worked with the community to show them the new grant opportunities that could be created and how the greenway could improve the overall health, wellness and walkability of the community. Importantly, they first listened to the concerns of the citizens and asked the right questions that enabled them all to work together to find an acceptable solution; this was only possible because the town government didn’t have the appearance of imposing the greenway system upon the community; they were genuinely interested and willing to look at all aspects of the project, thereby defusing the strong initial emotional reaction to the cost.

Transparency is important in disarming people who disagree with you; “ask permission of someone to say something that comes from a different perspective than theirs, with the goal of trying to find common ground between them. You might end up having to agree to disagree, but not be disagreeable; this outcome can happen if you are genuinely searching for common understanding.” Establishing such a collaborative stance requires someone “naturally wired to avoid conflict and look for points of commonality or similarities” among agencies or individuals where competition could easily surface. This spirit of collaboration can only happen by listening carefully to the concerns of all parties. One also must be noncompetitive and “not into winning”; the focus must be on the higher value of justice and opportunity for all rather than the interests of your own organization or mission.

Theme #2: A Path Forward Through Common Goals and Values
“Find the good and praise it”
-Lamar Alexander

A second major theme was the ability of leaders to exercise their convening capacity to bring people to the table and generate energy and focus around the common problem and greater good that everyone wants, rather than on the different approaches that separate them. One respondent cited the need to create a “community of people around an issue.” This community building may mean slowing down a contentious process and reorienting people around shared values and goals. Such a “de-escalation” does not mean giving up; rather, it means regrouping to get back on track and regain momentum. Another technique is focusing on the questions and problems everyone has in common rather than the preconceived positions or answers that divide them into different “bubbles” or perspectives. A final interesting technique is the use of common experiences to bring people together such as taking a trip together on public transit to develop more shared empathy for the transportation challenges faced by lower income citizens. Other salient comments included:

  • Must understand private as well as public sector motivation
  • People respond to personal time, energy and passion exhibited by a leader
  • Capitalize on your ability to convene
  • Be clear about what brings people together—articulate the goal and mission
  • Focus on the good on the other side and build on it
  • Find those who need each other to accomplish a goal and bring them together

An example of finding a path forward through common goals and values was the creation of the Levine Center for the Arts in downtown Charlotte. This project illustrated the need to find the intersection of mutual goals shared by the private and public sector and the effort is takes to understand each other. Leveraging partnerships becomes possible when all sides achieve something greater for the whole community. Successful bridgebuilders also have a “bent for action balanced by a reasonable tolerance for process.” Major projects are a marathon. One respondent described a successful project that took 15-20 personal touches per day for 3.5 years.

Another example is changing the tree ordinance in Charlotte, which provides incentives for developers to preserve trees on lots they build on. Developers were saving trees but not in meaningful areas; e.g., in the rear of the lot where the public does not benefit instead of in the front of the lot on the streetscape. Therefore, they successfully worked with the developers to craft a regulation that better serves the ultimate goal of balancing tree preservation and density by keeping trees at the front of the lots. The key is searching for that balance where everyone has to give up a little something but feel okay about the compromise because a greater good is being served; such an outcome takes dialogue, listening and hearing one another.

Theme #3: It’s All About Relationships
“Must have a relationship to have a hard conversation”
Local Bridgebuilder

It is clear from the interviews that bridgebuilders are very skilled at building relationships; they must be able to “do people” by engaging folks in conversation, creating a welcoming environment, and establishing rapport with a wide diversity of people. Techniques that are useful in such work are using humor and stories that relate to the situation at hand, suspending judgement by first putting yourself in other peoples’ shoes, and asking people at the table to share their story. Everyone cares about something for a reason; people need knowledge about each other before taking on a contentious task. Bridgebuilders must have credibility and trust, with no hidden agendas other than pursuit of the greater good. You need to earn that trust, and a formal title does not automatically give it to you.

Importantly, several respondents stressed that not everyone is built for this work. When I asked about whether certain highly visible leaders in our community were bridgebuilders, the answer was a resounding no. This response raises the point that there are people skilled at other types of leadership that should not be discounted but perhaps not best suited for building bridges among people. An example is the dynamic leader who has the ability to rally people and resources around a compelling vision; this is a style of leadership that can be highly useful but not sufficient if conflicts exist around how to achieve that vision; bridgebuilders are needed behind the scenes to work through these differences for the vision to become a reality. Other useful thoughts that surfaced in the interviews:

  • Things get done through relationships; you need some knowledge of each other before getting to the task at hand
  • Everyone has a story and cares about something
  • People want to come to the table, but someone must create a welcoming environment
  • We are a doing society instead of a being society – the first focus must be on relationships, not task
  • Need a diverse background so you can relate to a variety of people
  • Reach out to those who are by themselves in a setting
  • Must have an innate feel for inclusivity
  • People need to see excitement and passion in the leader
  • Choose your words carefully; it is very hard to take back a misstatement
  • Your reputation is everything and is built through transparency and demonstrating trustworthiness
  • Consider other peoples’ truths
  • People have “fear of the other”; must find ways to get people together; we are more alike than different

An example of relationships allowing hard conversations is the 1898 Foundation, a group of Wilmington civic leaders who came together to have conversations about how to commemorate the race riots a century earlier. In November 1898, the white supremacist movement initiated a race riot and coup during which African American citizens were killed and the elected municipal government was overthrown, in what has been called the only successful coup d’état in the history of the United States. A century later the story of 1898 and its impact on the city and state was not yet a part of common memory and played a minimal role in public history books. The goal of the foundation was to make the significance of the events known as a way of learning from the past and improving race relations in the community by healing the wounds of those who lost family members (or had family members otherwise involved) in the horrid occurrence.

A respondent who was involved with the foundation emphasized the challenge of getting the Wilmington community to acknowledge and remember the 1898 events, given that current community leaders who were needed to collaborate on the memorial included prominent individuals who were descendants of the perpetrators. This context is a core reason why the riots had previously not been publicly discussed. The necessary hard conversations were possible only because there were leaders at the table who had built up their reputations and relationships with each other in the community over time. They were able to talk honestly with each other and state things that people did not want to hear by showing a willingness to hear both sides and speak in a careful, respectful and calm manner. Thanks to their efforts, the 1898 Memorial now stands in downtown Wilmington.

Wilmington’s 1898 Memorial
Photo Credit: Odeleye Sculpture Studios LLC

 Theme #4:  The Importance of Political Cover through Neutral Competence
“Gentle pressure relentlessly applied”
-Local Bridgebuilder

Another interesting theme was the important role played by public administrators or non-elected officials in doing the bridgebuilding work needed to address divisive issues. Elected officials wear a label, so it’s harder for them to be accepted as unbiased since they are immediately affiliated with a perspective, ideology and political base. Political leaders must also “walk a tightrope” as any engagement in public discussions where compromise is involved can be seen by one’s base of supporters as “kowtowing” to the opposition. Public administrators do not have this burden to the same degree; they have more ability to work behind the scenes, out of the spotlight and bring a wider range of nontraditional people to the table. Public administrators also can have a longer time horizon to work with as the election timetable is not as much in play; bridgebuilding takes time and requires a reasonable tolerance for process balanced by a bias for action. Other comments included:

  • Need to have some ability to work behind closed doors
  • People are entitled to their opinion but not the facts
  • Need to engage people outside government, find nontraditional people with a fire, get away from public forums
  • Takes time – must have a reasonable tolerance for process
  • Sometimes you need to go slower, need to sometimes de-escalate and sit down and talk

A good example of neutral competence is the establishment of domestic partner benefits for City of Charlotte employees, a very sensitive political issue that elected officials were reticent about engaging. However, the career administrators saw the lack of these benefits as a serious recruiting barrier for the city, so they met with each council member individually to explain their concerns. Predictably, they received a mixed reaction. They decided to set up an opportunity for gay employees to speak to the administrative staff confidentially so they could have a conversation about the importance of the benefits and secure some real-life stories that they could use with the council to illustrate the impact on the lives of employees. Behind the scenes, they also briefed influential community leaders about the situation and asked for their support with the elected officials. At the end of the day almost all the council members decided to support the benefits, but “it took a village to help them to see that the city was out of step with other major employers.” Career administrators, working out of the spotlight, provided the information and support needed for council members to support publicly a potentially divisive political issue. 

Overarching Theme #5:  Humility Grounded in Public Service
“Need to listen with an open and humble heart”
Local Bridgebuilder

It was clear that bridgebuilding is very difficult without the ability to put ego and personal credit aside. The leader who is perceived as someone who is driven by public service rather than personal gain or credit (for either themselves or their organization) can build the trust necessary to have honest, difficult conversations. A respondent noted that skilled bridgebuilders have no presumption of “having it all figured out” but show their genuine concern by “consistently showing up at hard meetings.”

Importantly, this concept of humility grounded in service is not demonstrated by mere words; it is modeled in behaviors such as deflecting credit and success to others, empowering staff to do important work, asking for rather than demanding things, and showing patience when addressing complex issues that can be “generational work.” Finally, humility is demonstrated by a public willingness to work on one’s own shortcomings; that is, acknowledging that you need the help of others to solve a difficult issue. This may mean recognizing that you may not be the right person to be out in front on an issue; you may need to “honor your followers” by allowing others to step up and be the spokesperson. Other comments under this theme included:

  • Must have a personal passion and call to be a servant
  • Being overly concerned about image prevents people from honestly facing issues and make changes – need to have honest, tough conversations
  • Be willing to step back and empower staff to lead their teams
  • Your motive must be more than personal benefit; it is about leveraging partnerships because you both get something greater for the community
  • Can’t demand, must ask for things

An example of hard bridgebuilding work accomplished through humility grounded in public service is the City of Charlotte’s response to the Keith Lamont shooting and subsequent protests, some of which were violent, destructive and disruptive to businesses and citizens. Community leaders had to work with many groups behind closed doors to pull the community back together by helping them understand constructive rules of engagement; that is, how to make their voices heard without violence. These leaders included elected officials, city/county staff, and others who needed to learn that the protests and riots were just a flashpoint for what had been building up in certain forgotten parts of the community for years.

Instead of being overly concerned with the surface public image of the community and immediately insisting that “this is not Charlotte,” these leaders needed to honestly face issues by allowing angry citizens to vent their frustrations publicly in front of the city council. These televised public hearings were harsh but honest and laid the groundwork for real change such as public support for a major city commitment to provide more affordable housing units. A key element was the willingness of the city leaders to admit that even with all the growing affluence and economic development of Charlotte there are communities that feel left behind and discounted.

Conclusion:  Look to the Local Level!
These themes from interviews with recognized bridgebuilders reveal that amid all of the media coverage of polarization and divisiveness at the national level in our country, there are dedicated collaborative leaders addressing significant challenges on a regular basis at the local level across multiple sectors and venues. For our communities to make progress on tough issues where real differences exist, it is important to learn from exemplars of the personal qualities and techniques needed to be a leader who can build bridges among people and groups coming from different places, backgrounds, and perspectives. We also need to celebrate the victories, large and small, that are a result of such leadership to combat the cynicism in our political culture about our ability to work together to solve problems. Such leaders are all around us, modeling listening skills, building relationships, finding common ground, and working behind the scenes without taking credit. Take notice, observe, and learn from them.

Thomas J. Barth is a professor of Public Administration and Director of the Master of Public Administration program at the University of North Carolina Charlotte. He teaches, conducts research, and consults in the areas of human resource management, strategic planning, leadership and ethics. 

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