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How To Be An Effective Elected Official

Recently I wrote a post about the seven habits that unsuccessful elected officials have in common. Today I am writing about what makes one an effective elected official.

To Be An Effective Elected Official, You Must Focus On Big Ideas!

In a previous position as Chief of Staff to the nine member Common Council in Buffalo, I had contact with many elected officials. In this article, I will provide some insight from my practical experience, as to how you can be an effective elected official who makes a difference in your community.

The public today is much more demanding of results from their elected officials; yet very few elected officials seem to be able to make a difference. There are all kinds of experts available to help people run for office. Once a candidate wins an election however, there is very little help available on how to be an effective elected official that actually accomplishes something of significance.

Being an elected official is overwhelming in many ways. Every telephone call, e-mail, letter, fax and encounter at the supermarket, is about an individual problem that someone wants you to fix. Their garbage tote is broke and they want a new one; they received a parking ticket that they should not have to pay; their neighbors’ dog barks all night and you need to address the situation. In the mean time, you have some very thick reports filed for the upcoming Council meeting regarding public works contracts and other budget items that you need to read. You also have an evening meeting with a block club, in addition to your own family matters. Being an elected official is a very demanding job and it is difficult to determine where to focus your efforts.

People run for office, because they want to accomplish something. Dealing with garbage totes, parking tickets and barking dogs is probably not what most candidates had in mind, yet most elected officials spend all of their time focusing on solving individual problems. Peter Senge noted author and management consultant, points out that spending all of your time solving problems in the end gets you no where. Problems never go away; they keep coming and coming. Problem solving drains your time and energy, preventing you from focusing on big ideas that can make a difference.

Effective elected officials move beyond problem solving and focus on a vision for the future. What is your vision for your community? What are you passionate about seeing happen in your community? Effective elected officials can answer such questions, as they know what they want to accomplish, they have a vision that is clear and that others can rally behind.

When I have asked most elected officials about their vision and goals for the future, one of two things typically happens. First, the conversation is a bit awkward and uncomfortable as they are so busy and wrapped up in the problems of the day that they honestly have not thought about their vision for the future. Second, they rattle off an endless list of priorities without any clear sense of direction or focus. Both approaches get you nowhere.

Focusing on big ideas transforms people, as Ideas create energy and inspire people. Problem solving is about making something-unpleasant go away; it does not excite or inspire people. Problem solving drains you and your staff, and no matter what you do, people are not happy at the end of the day. Elected officials, who seek to create something, draw energy and people to them. Creating is how you make a difference in your community and how you stand out among your peers. Most people are not disciplined enough, focused enough and passionate enough to create something big.

To be an effective elected official, you must determine what you want to create. You must tackle big ideas, by rising above the problems of the day. The public is desperate for leaders with vision and the ability to accomplish something.

What do you think makes one an effective elected official?


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Peter Sperry

The ability to hire a good team and the willingness to delegate authority. I’ve worked for four Congressmen and a Senator. The ones who actually accomplish anything meaningful know what to delegate to their Chief of Staff and/or senior political operative. They need to let every constituent know they care (and the careing must be genuine) but they cannot do it all themselves and will only burn out if they try. If the staff have the authority and capbility to operate independently within boundaries laid down by the elected official, they can multiply his or her effectiveness by orders of magnitude. If they have to bring every decision back to the boss, they extend his or her reach but not very effectively. If they merely fill a patronage slot for a paycheck, they can actually do real harm.

Paul Wolf

Great points Peter. Sounds like you have a lot of experience working with elected officials. Micro managing people is not an effective way for getting things done as you point out, but many elected officials operate this way.

Sam Allgood

You didn’t specifically mention this, though it may have been assumed … that the big vision needs to be pretty-well defined going into the election, otherwise you will get so caught up in the problems that you won’t have time to create the vision (Tyranny of the Urgent). Also the big idea or vision has to be a good and right one. Hitler had some pretty big ideas, but they were disastrous … even having a lot of people buying into and supporting the idea doesn’t make it good.