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Local Leadership: When the Professional and the Personal Collide

Local Leadership: When the Professional and the Personal Collide

Some time ago I wrote an article for Public Management magazine entitled “All the Right Community Connections” in which I described why local leaders should be involved in their communities, both to enrich their lives and to broaden the contacts they have with community members. Unfortunately, sometimes being a recognized member of the community can upset the often delicate balance between the personal and private spheres. I had two such experiences while serving as a city administrator.

“Angus” was a retiree who lived outside the city limits but owned a few rental properties in the city where I worked. One property included a house and the unpaved, dead-end street it sat on.  Over time, Angus granted access easements to the homes built and sold along this street, as well as utility easements to the city and the power company, but he steadfastly refused to dedicate right of way for the street to the city and, as a result, was responsible for its ongoing maintenance.

One Sunday morning, as I was leaving the grocery store, Angus confronted me, shouting that he’d just had to pay, yet again, to have the street graveled and graded. He then angrily demanded to know what value he had received for the taxes paid.

Ordinarily I would have taken the time to calmly explain the details of taxes and street maintenance funding and to encourage him to simply dedicate the right of way, but I was irritated by his intrusion into my personal time and immediately replied that it entitled him to use the city’s streets to come and accost me on a Sunday morning.

Another instance resulted in long term damage to a personal friendship.

The city attorney and I gave a morning presentation to representatives of the business community regarding negotiations between the city and a commercial developer for a proposed development on surplus railroad right of way the city owned.

For nearly 100 years this right of way had made travel between the historic downtown and newer commercial growth difficult and cumbersome. One of the city’s goals was to establish new connections across the right of way and improve the ability to circulate back and forth between two areas.

In the course of the presentation and follow-up discussion, I referred to one of the benefits of the project as being the ability to “get around downtown”. What I meant was improved circulation between the two areas but what some in the room heard was that we intended for motorists to “bypass” downtown.

Before noon a personal friend who had invested in a small business in the historic downtown called to angrily accuse the city and me personally of betraying the business community. 

I was initially confused by the accusation and stung by the personal attack. Once I realized what had happened I was able to clarify my comments but not before real and lasting harm had been done. 

What lessons can we take away from these incidents?

Words matter, avoid shortcuts—If I had been more precise in explaining why the city was adding more street connections, I might have avoided the subsequent misunderstanding. It can be too easy to take for granted that your audience understands what you mean. Practicing presentations in front of a neutral third party, even a spouse, can often reveal misleading language.  

Tone can have an effect—I  usually responded calmly but Angus’ confrontational tone at an unexpected time and place prompted an uncharacteristic response. Perhaps it worked in a way that was correct for that incident but it is still best to be cognizant of the way you represent yourself and your organization.

Personal connections are important even if there is a potential for misunderstanding—In my Public Management article I discuss the value of the social capital you build by being connected to your community. I firmly believe that. As with most professions, it’s important to know your limits and to allow yourself to recuperate from work-related pressures: Carve out time for friends, family, exercise, or other activities that renew your spirits.

Finally, seek out support from others—If you need someone to talk to outside your community you can seek advice from a trusted colleague or through a professional organization. I was fortunate to have supportive spouse as well as my father, a retired city manager, to call upon. City managers and administrators can contact an ICMA Senior Advisor.  Other resources for government professionals include MRSC consultants, Association of Washington Cities, Washington Association of County Officials, Washington State Association of Counties, or comparable special district association. Some situations may justify contacting an employee assistance program services provider.

Remember that you don’t have to do it alone; having a sounding board can help you restore the personal/professional balance. 

Are you a recognized public figure in your community? Let us know what tools, resources, and professional associations you use to keep your professional life from intruding on your personal time.   

MRSC is a private nonprofit organization serving local governments in Washington State. Eligible government agencies in Washington State may use our free, one-on-one Ask MRSC service to get answers to legal, policy, or financial questions.

Photo of Lynn Nordby

About Lynn Nordby

Lynn’s public sector career included over 30 years in local government management and experience in virtually all municipal services including the operations of a wide variety of municipal utilities. He is now retired.