Both Jeremi Suri, a history professor at The University of Texas at Austin, and Travis County Judge Sam Biscoe stressed the importance of good leadership in helping shape the future of Austin at the Jan. 8 Engage Breakfast.
“I think it’s time we ask our politicians to say, not just what they promise to do about our problems, but what they envision the city looking like,” Suri said. “I think we do need a vision, and I don’t mean a visionary in terms of pie-in-the-sky.”
Suri holds the Mack Brown Distinguished Chair for Leadership in Global Affairs and Biscoe has been judge since 1998.
Some of Austin’s challenges facing leaders include continuing success, bridging gaps in equality, securing funding for the city’s needs and forming bonds for collaborative decisions.
Biscoe said transparency and collaboration are key aspects to effective leadership, even through these challenges.
“The importance of transparency is that it gives residents a chance to trust you,” Biscoe said. “That’s important if you want to do big things and bring about fundamental change.”
In terms of the commissioner’s court, Biscoe said it requires the collaboration of multiple commissioners to get something done, and because of that collaboration, the court has been able to do things that he “frankly, never thought [they]would do.”
Leadership also includes bringing in the public to be part of the discussion, a point Suri called a significant hurdle facing Austin leaders.
“I think the challenge of leadership is always getting more voices involved and not allowing things to devolve to the point of chaos because so many voices are involved,” Suri said.
Such inclusion and dialogue is what opens the door to timely decisions and compromise among groups that otherwise do not see eye to eye on a particular topic, Suri said.
“It’s when people think it’s all about this decision right now and I have to put all my cards on the table, it makes it very very hard to get people to compromise because it’s do or death,” Suri said. “But when it’s a process and you have credibility—that even though this time you won’t be getting most of what you want, I’ll be coming back and you’ll have a chance down the line—then that’s what works.”
Although it’s important for our leaders to engage with the people, Biscoe said it’s also important for residents and potential leaders to get involved in improving the community.
“You have to passionately want to do something, then you figure out how,” Biscoe said. “The easier way to do that is to look around, see who’s doing that now and making a difference and join them.”
The next Engage Breakfast is scheduled for Feb. 5 on the top of the city’s changing governance to 10 single-member districts. For more information on the breakfast series, visit www.leadershipaustin.org/ programs/engage/series.