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The Conundrum of Today’s Leaders

Thursday, October 23, 2014

It’s the “lifers” that can so often be the biggest liability. Those that have lived their whole lives in a community can be the biggest roadblock to their survival and rebirth.

To be sure, there are a handful that break the mold...people like Jerry Frautschi, who, with his wife Pleasant Rowland, made a $200 million donation to the City of Madison just over a decade ago to build one of the most stunning Performing Arts Centers in the nation.

Jerry, you see, is one of those rare individuals that so loved his community that he gave back in a fashion that still boggles the mind. Not that others in the community didn’t complain that the money should have been used for something else (like solving the homeless condition...which, of course, can’t be). But Jerry saw the opportunity to give back to the city that has been so good to his family...and we are all better for it.

Unfortunately, most lifers become disengaged critics; curmudgeons blocking the path of those that have a vision and a passion for the regeneration of our communities. And, I see it first-hand in this gig with which I am so blessed.

And frustrated...as I lead focus groups with the business elite and governmental leaders of communities struggling to reinvent themselves. The negativity and despair I witness on an all too frequent basis always comes from lifers. Because they’ve tried and failed, maybe several times, to turn their town around.

I was leading such a focus group recently in a town that, from an outsider’s point of view, is tantalizingly close to becoming cool again. Yet, the first 30 minutes of the discussion was consumed with a weary diatribe about crime (or, more accurately, the perception of crime), City-County dysfunctionalism, the lack of political will or resources to address the issues standing it the community’s path, the (perceived) lack of private sector interest in the downtown, the growing issues of poverty and racism, the lack of commercial air service, the significant subsidies for the convention center and stadium. I was growing fatigued a third of the way into the 90 minutes we were scheduled to meet.

We led nine focus groups that week...and this one contained the individuals that, on paper, had the greatest potential to leave a mark.

It also contained two Millennials that couldn’t make their affinity group time slot later in the day, so we’d seated them when they could attend...the 10:30am “movers and shakers” meeting. These were two Millennials that had just purchased homes downtown. Two Millennials that said they fully intended to be part of the solution to downtown’s funk.

After enduring the 30 minutes of “stinking thinking”, from the power elite, one of the Millennials called them out, dropping the “f” bomb, asking what was wrong with them. Downtown, he said, is where I want to be...I love the experiences you say are killing the downtown you remember. But, it’s never going back to that memory. We’re creating a new, vibrant and sensationally diverse downtown. Essentially, he said to the power elite in the room, “either you’re with us...or get the hell out of the way.”

As we’ve said before...Millennials were never taught to ask permission. They just do. And, while that may be annoying to some Boomers...it is exactly what our communities need. Most are so paralyzed by old customs, expectations and memories that those that are in a position to affect change don’t or can’t.

The oldest Millennial is, today, 35 years old. I have to laugh because that is how old I was when a number of community activists engaged our region in a conversation about the future of Madison’s downtown. Many of the people behind the rebirth of Downtown Madison into the Top 10 city we are today were not yet 40. Such a band of rebels we were. We were told over and over we would fail...like every group before us.

But, we won.

It’s time to make way for those that aren’t brittle with defeat. Let the new kids take a shot.

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