Emerging Leaders Academy Graduation Speech: Gary O’Bannon

Comments Delivered By Gary O’Bannon, Director of Human Resources, City of Kansas City, MO
On July 17, 2013

Gary O'Bannon

You know, you write your own bio, but it always sounds foreign when someone else reads it aloud. You think to yourself, “wow, it’s funny how you look up one day and you find yourself giving commencement speeches, accepting “life-time” service awards, and pondering what you’re going to do in the next phase of your life.

Thanks to all of you for coming this afternoon to help us celebrate the July 17, 2013, Emerging Leaders Academy Graduation Ceremony. And thank you to the KU leadership here today for asking me to spend a few minutes with you.

I spent the last couple of days trying to decide what meaningful words I could share with you. I had decided on the positive aspects of dedicating your life to public service, and all the joy that brings on each day as we try to continually justify the value of what we do. Then I decided that since you are public servants, you are probably aware of two things:

  1. You know why you dedicated yourself to public service, and
  2. While there is some joy, there’s not an overabundance every day.

Regardless, the vast majority of us who chose this field say they joined public service “to make a difference.” To that end, it is important for me to begin today by collectively expressing my thanks to each of you who is associated with all the public services. Thank you for the work that you do and the services that you give, the dedication that you show, the reforms that you are spearheading, and the changes for good that you are making.

I settled on the topic that obviously flows with why you are here today and that is leadership. Holding the position of Human Resources Director allows you to form some pretty strong opinions about leadership, and turning 50 generally gives you the belief that all those opinions are perfectly right!

HR and other institutions have talked endlessly about what qualities are needed in this century, and how we develop these competencies in our emerging leaders. Not everyone agrees on what those are, depending on your perspective, but I feel a bit qualified to give you my perspective, and I hope you find it worthwhile.

I’ve been fortunate enough to work for the City of Kansas City for 28 years. I’ve seen many city councils, mayors, city managers, department directors, etc., come and go, and I’ve come to some conclusions about leadership:

  1. Leadership is about courage, creativity and faith in people.
  2. You can’t be a successful leader without mediation skills to facilitate knowledge sharing, ensure ownership and accountability, and foster innovation.
  3. You must have a vision rooted in community service and ethical behavior.
  4. You must have a sense of decisiveness in ever-changing environments with blurred boundaries.

Perhaps an oversimplification, but leaders have to effect solutions. Leaders solve problems and are successful by coalescing others for the same purpose.

We’ve been in the work world long enough and seen enough successes and failures to realize that one of the most important obstacles to success is short-sighted vision. The inability, or the lack of opportunity, to look at an overall agenda – agendas that are medium- to long-term.

We often take our cues from our national leaders, who set the tone – like kids in the household who take the same cues and tones set by their parents. It’s not breaking news that our political leaders are failing us. The election models of today, 2-4 year terms fight against problem resolution and place a premium on differences. Once elected, members spend their day trying to outmaneuver other parts of the political spectrum. And the problem is that this is okay because this model hasn’t changed in decades. We say it is not okay but is it really? It’s still in place and no one has a viable solution. In the meantime people suffer, opportunities are lost, and goals are not reached.

This malaise has crept into our workplace as well. We’re not immune. The next tier of leaders have got to coalesce and find a better way to work collectively to solve this problems. Otherwise, we’ll all lose together. You must commit to having the courage to do what’s right and to stand for the principles that are expected of each of us, particularly for the leaders who work as public servants.

We create lots of labels to separate us: I’m a supervisor, you’re a subordinate; I’m a manager, you’re my report-to…. Regardless of the labels that separate us, you must never forget that there are more similarities amongst us than differences, and the vast majority of us are working towards the same goals, and we all want the same thing—opportunities, respect, and support.

Leadership is a tough proposition. When the sun is shining and the money is good, all is right with the world. However, with leadership comes accountability, not only of yourself but of those that you lead.
It is impossible to be an effective leader without the ability to sit down and talk to people. LISTEN! If they are wrong, explain why and describe for them the correct path.

It is crucial to mediate conflict, ask probing questions, and get to the source of the issue without emotion but with the appropriate amount of passion to bring problems to a proper resolution. Unfortunately, you won’t win everyone over. You will lose some along the way. You’ll lose less by spending 99% of your time coaching up and acknowledging the 99% of those individuals and teams that reach success as opposed to spending 99% on that 1% who aren’t with the program. That 1% has to be held accountable and the 99% not only expect you to do it, but will demand it or take their talents elsewhere (maybe to south beach!). We must again never forget that most people want to do the right thing and will if given the proper tools and the proper motivation and the proper leadership.

We must control our inherent tendency to avoid potential conflict. Unfortunately, this is part of the deal. Visionary change can’t come without conflict. In fact, I proffer that it WON’T COME without managed conflict. If you’re a supervisor or manager and everyone likes you, I would suspect that you’re not doing it right. “If everyone speaks well of you… there’s something wrong with you” and leadership is not for you.

We need to give serious pause to what’s going on around us. I believe we are at a serious crossroads in our society, which only extends to the workplace, and if you believe it doesn’t – you’re just flat out wrong. The ills of society invade the most functional of homes and those on the “best places to work” list.

Again, leadership is not coming from our national leadership structures – ground roots are rising up again – that’s a sign that something is going wrong, and that we’re not trending the right way. Rights for gay people didn’t come from the Capitol; changes to the justice system don’t come from inside the justice systems. Workplace change doesn’t come from Big Business or Congress. It comes from us. It comes from a collective spirit and a group that says, change by any means necessary.

Quick examples: Just a few years ago, what employers would have granted certain rights and benefits to gay couples, domestic partners? It took a while but smoking used to be “cool.” One of my favorite actors is Humphrey Bogart. I’ve got more than one picture or symbol of that guy in my house right now, and in each one he’s lighting up! In about 20 years, smokers have gone from Joe-Cool to standing outside in the freezing cold or in boxy, enclosed death cubicles – they’re almost pariahs in 2013! Heck, before the dot.com era, who could bring their pets to work with them?! Change comes from within these structures and if you don’t adapt to them you’re left behind. Some will say that Apple and Microsoft are driving technological enhancements every six months to make money – true to some degree – but who’s driving that demand? We do! People do.

If you look back in our history, throughout the progress of human society, what’s really worked best in the interest of society is a vision which looks beyond today and into the future. Think in your mind right now who some of those people were – their success was rarely immediate; they knew that real, true success would not come until years later and perhaps not even in their lifetime. However, they had the courage to take the first step.

We need to find out who these people are and celebrate them and bring them into the decision-making fold.

Leadership is about leading with the heart and to serve rather than rule.