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Oct 2001 / communities :: email this story to a friend

A New Definition of "Leadership"
By Dave Drebes

Every year the RGCA gathers up its list of civic, business and political biggies and invites them to go on the Leadership Exchange, a three-day sojourn to a peer city to learn their "best practices" and transplant them back in St. Louis.

The trip is a great success every year. I enjoyed the head-swelling experience three years ago when I was the outgoing president of Metropolis St. Louis. It's a hailstorm of Who's Who, lots of handshakes, hubbubs, and "aren't we doing great things!" Unfortunately, there is not a single documented example of folks getting an idea on one of these trips and successfully making it happen in St. Louis. Even the ideas that originated in St. Louis and go on the trip seem to wilt and die before they can happen. "The curse of the RCGA trip" some have called it. The Launching Pad In the age of measurable outcomes, the RCGA trip is donut — a tasty, yummy donut, but it's a donut nevertheless. Conjuring up a scheme where you could collect individuals to turn ideas into action is not as easy as one might think, but today, I'm offering up a five-point plan. This is not merely an exercise in imagination, although it hopefully is that. This five-point plan will be tested later this month when Metropolis convenes The Launching Pad, a daylong summit of citizens to take on the challenges that confront the City of St. Louis. Will it work? We will soon see.


1. Redefine leadership

The gravest failing of the RCGA Trip is a misdefinition of leadership. The trip would better be called the Authority Trip, but it identifies leaders by title. It is a concept rooted in the hierarchical nature of the 1950s economy. Leaders have men reporting to them; Good leaders have many men reporting to them; and Great Leaders have many, many men reporting to them. But in a community like St. Louis where the "leadership" spends more effort defending turf than boldly leading, any progressive plan for improvement will have to redefine leadership. When I think of folks who are making the city a better place, I think of people who are defined by their actions rather than by their organizations or job descriptions: Jamala Rogers, Sandra Roberts, Joe Edwards, Blake Brokaw, Thomas Schlafly, Julius Anthony, Joe Squillace...

Whether it's Schlafly or Edwards risking to develop a place where others have fled, or Rogers or Squillace who build bridges and push for progressive reform, or Brokaw or Roberts who create space where young people gather and network, these folks have several characteristics in common. First, passion. They all love to make a difference and salary, title, and prestige are way down the list of things that matter. They remind one of the old ballplayers who would have never held out for a higher salary. They just loved to play the game. The other commonality is a willingness to be untimely. That often can be translated to read "ahead of their time." Forward thinking and imaginative thinking find uncommon solutions and push others to be courageous in thought and deed.

2. Define challenges, define success

In Baltimore (a peer city the trip visited) there were three main ideas being pushed: regional funding opportunities, regional service efficiencies and regional governance. Okay, so there was really only one idea. But it was an idea that no one could get their hands around and there was no way to verify that it was really the cure-all solution. So where did regionalism go? It went to the place that most cocktail chatter goes — nowhere, often slowly and after a couple of committees or forum. The need to define what needs to be changed in a specific time and how we will know whether we accomplished it or not is fundamental to creating change.

3. Invite everyone

Regional Growth of Committees and Associations This gets back to point #1. RCGA fails because their definition of leadership is exclusive (and also it's hollow, but that's another story). You have to get as many different people as you can together. After the trip, I had the chance to offer some thoughts to the RCGA and suggested to that they consider inviting someone from the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. I remember seeing the light bulb go on and I assume they're invited now. But isn't it amazing how adoration of the conventional definition of leadership can be so blinding? That the Regional Chamber of Commerce hadn't considered inviting someone from the region's Hispanic Chamber of Commerce? That it took a 27-year-old nobody like me to suggest it? It isn't about "diversity," as much as it's about being open to finding folks who will make things happen and those folks are everywhere. They don't look alike, dress alike, share similar job titles or job descriptions. There is no profile for leadership.

4. Give them seed money and expertise

The people in the trenches where a great deal of the change agents live, work and play are starved for money. Their imagination and courage is regularly under funded and a small amount of money can make an incredible difference in their ability to do good work. Seed money for such mundane things as copying expenses or snacks or postage makes making change a lot easier. It's not quite as glamorous as paying consultants, but it is a bigger bank for buck. The other resource most necessary for success is information. Information is critical to solving every complex challenge with which our city is faced. Conversations where information is lacking or hidden quickly devolve into frustration. One must be able to provide change agents and leaders with reliable, relevant information.

5. Let them go

Finally, let them fail or succeed. Don't manage success. Managing success means that you're more interested in the press releases you're producing than whether there is anything underneath. A recent RCGA "success" is the St. Louis at Work website. It only has about 150 jobs listed and about 70% of the listings are from four firms. The likelihood that this site will be more helpful than the resources already available is next to zero. But they issue press releases as if they've done something wonderful. Creating change means accepting failure. It's not a possibility, but a necessity for success. So St. Louis at Work is a failure. That's okay. The denial prevents leaders from embracing progress. Failing is wonderful because it is necessary to succeed. But denying the existence of a flop is the single best recipe for future mediocrity.


On Saturday, October 27th, Metropolis St. Louis will host The Launching Pad, a grassroots organizing conference to tackle specific challenges toward making St. Louis more attractive to young people. The conference — which is open to everyone in the St. Louis region — will run from 8:30 a.m. - 4:00 p.m. at Forest Park Community College. Both breakfast and lunch will be served at a cost of only $5 thanks to the ever-generous Danforth Foundation and the Metropolis Forum. Participants at the conference will form working groups around challenges that range from technology to recreation to social justice to reversing disinvestment. (There will also be space and time available for the mavericks who make our city great to conjure and pitch their own ideas.)

All challenges will have measurable results attached to them and the participants will be challenged to construct an action plan to meet those results within a year, and then implement the action plan themselves. Metropolis will provide some seed money to follow-up organizing and provide for experts from the fields to be available during the conference for technical assistance. For more information, please contact Dave Drebes (865-4573, To register please call Forest Park Community College at 644-9175.

Dave Drebes lives in the Tower Grove East neighborhood and co-publishes The Arch City Chronicle.

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