Stepping Up

Stepping Up

Just a little more than ten years ago, the late Brian Howell and I used about a dozen pages of this magazine to consider the next generation of civic leadership in Madison. We spent the better part of a year or so meeting regularly with about twenty folks, civic leaders in their own right, about what was needed to move this city—and the region it anchors—forward, and who had the right stuff to do it. It was a time of change with a number of key jobs about to open up and the sense was the needs of the city had outpaced the skills of its leadership. 

Since then we’ve been on a pretty good run. John Wiley and Biddy Martin, Jenifer Alexander, Dave Cieslewicz, Art Rainwater, to name a few, all contributed a combination of vision and stability. Under their watch a fair number of new, energized and thoughtful business, nonprofit and public service leaders emerged. But in the very near future, we will have a new UW chancellor, a new Madison schools superintendent, a new Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce president (and, hopefully, a new leader of the Advance Now economic development entity). That’s a pretty significant turnover of talent. 

So, in the hours I laid in bed staring at the ceiling the night—and early morning—after the recall election, I started thinking again about the challenges our city and our region are facing and what kinds of skills we’ll need in our next group of leaders. How’s this for a start: They have to be able to work with both Gov. Scott Walker and Mayor Paul Soglin. And it gets harder from there.

In 2002 our sources said our next leaders needed a regional perspective, superior management skills, integrity, the ability to build consensus, vision and a healthy appetite for risk. All remain absolutely essential attributes for the folks we chose to lead our university, our schools, our business community and our region. We could use them in our elected officials as well, although that might be asking too much. 

In fact, until the loudest voices on the left lose their mean-spirited anger and love for politics as blood-sport, and the equally loud voices on the right lose their smug self-righteousness and ideologically rigid fervor, our leaders on all levels are going to have to have higher-than-usual patience, tolerance and courage. Especially courage—to listen, to agree, to change. 

It would help to get some outside perspective, perhaps some experiences different from ours. That hasn’t always been easy, as we have tended to give preference to folks who are from Madison, or “know how we do things in Madison.” But that’s not going to cut it anymore. 

While former UW chancellor Biddy Martin paid an awful price for being too independent and willing to actually work with Governor Walker for the greater good of the University of Wisconsin, and Madison schools superintendent Dan Nerad got worn down butting heads with school board members and teacher’s union reps who view innovation and change as anti-public education, we actually need more of both. 

The UW must remain committed to accountability through greater autonomy and competitive flexibility. Our public schools demand innovation and creative thinking using the best teaching and governance methods in the world. And our business and regional economic development sectors need to pursue effective collaboration that bridges divisive politics, but with a vision of city-statehood that leads to global competitiveness independent of government. 

It is another time of significant change for our city and our region. We need leaders who understand the landscape but have the resolve and vision to rock the boat, bring in new, young talent, make diversity a fundamental tenet, support fair but effective politics, think big, manage wisely and take chances. And work with both Governor Walker and Mayor Soglin. Any takers?   

Neil P. Heinen is editorial director of Madison Magazine.

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