I have been incredibly lucky to have known the people I have known. Not only in my wonderful extended family, but through my education and work.Coming to Minnesota was really the beginning of my civic awareness. I have been exposed to some remarkable people – those that decided one day that enough was enough and who made the decision to step forward and do something. Oftentimes, that something turned into something remarkable. They say one person cannot change the world, but I beg to differ. I have seen it many times. A passionate, caring person with emotional intelligence and grit can alter the course of history.

During my work on the Minnesota River, I met three passionate, amazing people that made me believe in civic life again. I saw what was possible and I admired their courage and sensibility. I will write a short sketch of these men in future blogs, but for now, I will focus on more recent relationships that have also inspired me.

In my work with the Midwest Active Citizenship Initiative (MACI) and Peg Michels, we have learned a great deal from civic leaders regarding the kinds of personality traits they believe are needed in order to have the greatest potential for success in the public realm. Certainly, few people possess all of these skills to begin with, but we have seen that when people feel motivated, see a need for change, and are supported in their new roles, they can learn and develop their strengths in order to work on issues that matter most to them.

Below, this table outlines those traits that leaders have found to be most needed in order to initiate real change in a community. Take a look and ask yourself if you already model these broad skills and characteristics.

Characteristics of Successful Civic Leaders


Effective Civic Leaders Should:
Have a fundamental belief in the power and wisdom of collective action as a way to solve persistent public problems – that collaborative approaches often result in stronger outcomes and more engaged citizens over the long term.
Be skeptical of “business as usual” approaches that do not produce results.
Not be cynical and maintain a belief in the idea that there may be a better way.
Be ready to learn a new way to organize and engage citizens in problem-solving. This means being open and willing to suspend judgment for a time.
Be willing to take a critical look at how they govern and make decisions inside their organizations and to make changes as needed, as it feels right.
Be people unafraid of change and willing to take small risks in order to initiate needed changes.
Not be “people pleasers”.  They do not let others organize them to an agenda that will take them off course.
Not be bothered by ambiguity and the idea that there are no “magic bullet” answers.
Have patience and an appreciation for complexity – that changes come slowly over time when addressing complex public problems.
Have an appreciation for the need for structure and process as key elements of successful public projects.
Be able to take criticism and to handle tension and conflict that are inevitable parts of defining the common good.
Be compassionate and patient with people trying new things, while also being willing to hold them accountable to keeping their word.
Be able to prioritize their time – eventually moving from a reactionary mode to a strategic and disciplined approach that focuses on what they most want to accomplish.
Be persistent, without being controlling.
Be able to look beyond creating winners and losers, or blaming or shaming people in order to get important work done.




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