On Leadership

Congress Could Learn Much from Santa Barbara

Call it being neighborly, caring for others, emphasizing the positive, giving back, or just plain teamwork but by any name it’s what America stands for. And, no city does it better than Santa Barbara.

If Congress and the White House would ever agree to come to the “American Riviera” for a community-building tutorial, relationships between our elected officials in Washington, D.C. might well be very different.

I’ve been fortunate to work and volunteer in several wonderful communities –-Ann Arbor, Michigan; Indianapolis, Indiana; Claremont, California; Chicago, Illinois; and San Francisco, California – but none has a more enviable spirit of kindness and genuine concern for others than Santa Barbara.

With Congress’s recent abysmal approval ratings, the only way to go is up and a trip to Santa Barbara would be worth the investment to get our legislative and executive bodies working together again.

When writing my recent book, Real Leaders Don’t Boss (Career Press, 2012), I was preoccupied with the nagging question of why our nation’s leaders so often have trouble solving the nation’s ills. But then I came across a quote by Theodore Roosevelt that helped put the matter into perspective. Our 26th president said: “Aggressive fighting for the right is the greatest sport in the world” (David O. Stewart, The Summer of 1787, 2008). Intransigence and obstructionism on both sides of the political spectrum are nothing new. Neither is this the first time in our country’s history that compromise has been the subject of ridicule nor the last era in which problem-solving elected officials will resign out of frustration.

I recall listening recently to one of our government’s most unselfish public servants, Robert Gates, the highly successful former secretary of defense, when he spoke in Santa Barbara at the Fess Parker Doubletree. He successfully confronted numerous difficult choices through an exceptional ability to form close, collaborative relationships with people of very different political stripes, religions, and ideologies. Gates is a real leader who demonstrated courage of conviction and who skillfully led change by teaming with very diverse constituencies.

If our elected leaders were to come to Santa Barbara, I’d suggest they listen to and interact with the likes of Sara Miller McCune, Michael Towbes, Anna Grotenhuis, Leni Fe Bland, Leslie Ridley Tree, Nancy Koppelman, Wendy Minot, Leslie Tolan, and countless more. They don’t just espouse civility, cooperation, charity, and community; they live it and demonstrate it each and every day and Santa Barbara prospers.

Ten Guidelines for Congressional Leaders: Thinking about such examples helped me put together this list of “10 Key Guidelines” for elected leaders who want to make a difference on the Hill and be effective problem-solvers:

1. Take the time to get to know and understand others, including your adversaries, and discover what remarkable gifts they possess.

2. Show respect for others, be congenial and genuinely interested in other people; build others’ self esteem and steadfastly avoid hurtful discourse.

3. Understand that major differences of opinion will arise, as we are different human beings. Commit early on to channel conflict in order to achieve creative ends.

4. Create a climate of harmony, keeping in mind a greater goal exists that is bigger than any one person. By creating a positive environment in the face of multiple pressures and time constraints, you will be more able to rise above parochial interests.

5. Work hard to discover traits or characteristics you like in others.

6. Understand that to disagree doesn’t mean to be disrespectful.

7. Be inventive, conceptual, and astute in recasting challenges in ways that enable all parties to succeed.

8. Realize that you are recognized and rewarded not as an ideologue, but as a problem solver.

9. Teach others by constantly learning and grasp that the ability to compromise is not a weakness.

10. As leadership expert Warren Bennis (On Becoming a Leader, 2009) suggested: Develop and maintain trust by being constant, congruous, reliable persons of integrity.

Benjamin Franklin urged the delegates to the Constitutional Convention in 1787 to compromise—not their principles—but their overwhelming urge to be right. Mr. Franklin is no longer here but there are many Santa Barbarans from whom our federal leaders could learn. Bring them to Santa Barbara.

Ritch K. Eich, Ph.D, has served as a trustee of the Santa Barbara College of Law, a columnist for the Pacific Coast Business Times, and the university executive to whom KCLU-FM in Santa Barbara reported for six years. He is a Navy Captain, and has served two U.S. Senators and two U.S. Representatives from both sides of the political spectrum.


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