HETRICK: Thank God the election's over, but what now?

November 12, 2011

Another election is behind us.

Our mailboxes will no longer be filled with toxic sludge.

Our curbs no longer littered with campaign signs.

Our airwaves no longer dominated by distortions and half-truths.

To all the candidates, thank you. Each election, we’re reminded what an ugly process this can be. Few are willing to invest the time, raise the money, take the hard shots, or subject themselves to the mud slinging.

But despite the punitive process and bureaucratic reputation, public service is a high calling. Hours are long, scrutiny high, privacy nonexistent, resources limited and the pay often pithy.

We owe a debt of gratitude to all who run and serve.

Because these are public servants, however, we also get to provide them with free advice. So as a new cadre of candidates takes office in Indiana and beyond, here are some insights in the aftermath of campaign 2011.

Don’t let it go to your head

It’s inevitable. After every election, no matter how small the victory margin, some newly elected official steps to the podium and proclaims the divine right and obligation of a popular mandate.

They’ll say, “The citizens of this community have spoken.” Or, “This is the will of the people.” Or, “I’m doing what Americans everywhere want me to do.”

But I say it ain’t so. Let’s do the math.

In Indianapolis, roughly two-thirds of our 900,000 or so citizens are registered to vote.

Of those approximately 600,000 potential voters, fewer than 30 percent cast a ballot in this year’s mayoral election.

Of those 180,000 voters, roughly 51 percent supported the winner.

So Mayor Ballard won re-election with the votes of 92,000 people—about 10 percent of the county’s population and 15 percent of registered voters.

Conversely, 85 percent of those eligible voted for either “apathy” or “Kennedy.” That does not a mandate make.

It does, however, represent an opportunity to lead.

Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us

I saw a quote recently that said, “No one looks as good as their Facebook profile, nor as bad as their driver’s license photo.”

Likewise, candidates aren’t as good as their own ads make them out to be, or as bad as their opponents’ ads would have us believe.

In his 2005 book, “The Ballard Rules: Small Unit Leadership,” future mayor Greg Ballard advises would-be leaders to treat everyone with respect.

That would be good advice for office-seekers, too. Though they don’t often heed that advice, now that the campaign is over they can at least forget the distorted attacks, forgive the attackers and focus, instead, on implementing the best ideas to emerge from the campaign.

The gutsiest move officeholders can make

In his book, Ballard includes a chapter about listening.

“Smart people listen very well,” he says, “with an innate sense of curiosity. They listen to a wide variety of viewpoints and try to understand all of them. When making decisions, it helps to understand multiple points of view. Listening well aids in this understanding.”

In another chapter, Ballard says wise leaders realize that, “Your way is not the only way.”

“Your leadership position gives you the ability to implement ideas from everywhere,” Ballard says. “They do not have to be your ideas. Good leaders use their authority to implement ideas, no matter the source.”

Elections are great reality checks. Knocking on doors, listening to opponents, debating ideas—they’re all opportunities for improvement. But few candidates have the guts to tap the best ideas and capitalize on the expertise of their opponents.

I’ve long admired Gov. Mitch Daniels for his willingness to appoint his predecessor and election opponent, Joe Kernan, as co-chairman of a commission on local government reform. It gave the commission instant, bipartisan credibility and demonstrated Daniels’ respect for the man he faced on the political battlefield.

Prepare to rebuild your team

Public service is not for everyone. And it’s not forever. After a first term of service, many senior staffers will be ready to move on to new challenges and more money.

This is not a sign of disloyalty. It’s not a negative reflection on the elected official at the helm. It’s inevitable change, and the wise leader will see it as an opportunity to upgrade at every position.

Life in a house divided

In his book, retired Marine Greg Ballard talks a lot about hierarchy and top-down decision-making.

“Two people cannot be in charge,” Ballard says. “There is only one head coach, only one president, only one Pope. Even when equivalent employees get together to decide something, it is really their senior leader who approves or disapproves the group decision.”

Yet in government, the legislative and executive branches are partners in either progress or paralysis.

Here’s hoping Republican Ballard and the newly elected Democratic council can work together to deliver more of the former than the latter.•


Hetrick is an Indianapolis-based writer, speaker and public relations consultant. His column appears twice a month. He can be reached at bhetrick@ibj.com.


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