Flexibility and Balance: Bringing Your Whole Self to City Leadership

“Don’t be so certain.” That’s the advice that Shreveport, Louisiana Mayor Adrian Perkins said he would give his younger self. A relative newbie to public office, he came into the job set on a three-pronged platform that focused on public safety, economic development and technological advancement – all things the pandemic swiftly derailed in his second year in office.

That taught Perkins an important lesson about flexibility. It’s one he is still applying in leading the city of almost 190,000 residents. “As things change – and one thing that I’ve noticed is that things will always change – you just need to be prepared for that,” Perkins said, speaking during a panel at the NextGen Government Training Virtual Summit on May 11, 2022. “You have to be agile and you have to set principles in your organization to be prepared for whatever comes next.”

Three principles he established are:

  • Lead by caring, which means making decisions for each and every resident regardless of ZIP code, race or religion
  • Use technology to help solve problems
  • Be aggressive, bold and ambitious

That second principle – and a part of his original platform, it’s worth noting – came into play during the height of the pandemic, when his office used technology to determine that the health crisis was disproportionately affecting minority communities.

“First, we cared. We wanted to see what we could do to improve the quality of life for our citizens, keep our citizens safe in the middle of a pandemic, but then we utilized technology,” Perkins said. “In utilizing technology, we were able to take some data that we had here at the office, create heat maps and that’s where the picture became clear on where we needed to focus resources.”

His staff organized mobile testing centers in affected neighborhoods and saw cases decline in the following weeks. It’s a method that many other localities nationwide would also adopt to mitigate the spread and impact of COVID-19 in their communities.

Elaborating on the lesson of flexibility, Perkins offered two pieces of advice to other public-sector leaders:

  • Create contingency plans so you can pivot when the unexpected happens
  • Make sure you have reserve resources on hand to deal with that surprise situation

Focus on Mental Health

A second lesson that Perkins said the past two years as a city leader amid a pandemic have taught him is the importance of mental health. Growing up in a poor neighborhood and later serving in the military, mental health was not a priority until he was in Harvard Law School and a classmate committed suicide. Then president of the student body, Perkins helped organize a poll to check in on students’ well-being, and when the results were concerning, he lobbied the school for resources to improve it.

“Bringing those experiences into the mayor’s office, I knew with the pandemic…that people would be suffering from mental health [strains],” Perkins said. “You’ve got social isolation, you’ve got people that are in various financially precarious positions, a lot of unknowns are out there.”

To help, he reminded residents during press conferences of the free mental health hotline available, and he called 20 residents a day himself to check up on them.

Work-life balance has also become a priority for Perkins, both personally and professionally. Shortly after he took office, a friend of his reminded him that working to the point of burnout would make him useless to the city. Now, Perkins carves out time each day to work out, sets aside some weekends for family time and travels.

“I do all the things necessary to make sure I’m bringing my whole self into this office,” he said.

And he’s encouraging his staff to do the same: “I do assessments for all of my direct reports every quarter. We’ll talk about where we are, where we want to go, make sure we’re on track, and when I’m having these individual conversations, I’m checking on their mental health, checking on how they’re doing, so it’s very important to be sure that as a leader you are emphasizing work-life balance, not just in word but in deed.”

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