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Leadership

"Rough waters are truer tests of leadership.
In calm water every ship has a good captain."
- Swedish proverb

"To be able to lead others, a man must be willing to go forward alone."
- Harry Truman

"The true Mark of leadership is getting people to follow you, even when it’s the last thing they want to do."
- Anonymous


In May of 2007 Kansas City was on the brink of a financial crisis. The worldwide economy had already been trending downward. In the previous eight years Kansas City had almost tripled her debt to subsidize mostly private projects like the Power and Light District. The city’s budget had not been structurally balanced in years.

Voters, recognizing the situation, shunned the usual politicians and elected Mark Funkhouser, a former auditor with a Ph.D. to hold the reins at City Hall. They knew Dr. Funkhouser would be smart with the money, and bring sane spending back to Kansas City by eliminating waste.

Almost four years later, in the teeth of the greatest recession since the great depression, Kansas City stands financially strong once again due to the leadership of Mark Funkhouser.

But it wasn’t easy. The waters were rough.

In Kansas City being a leader means standing up to a power structure that is used to getting its way. Some elected officials find it easier to follow behind this insider group, granting them favor after favor. But that is not leadership – it was what got Kansas City into debt - and Mark Funkhouser knew that it could not continue.

A good leader starts by being successful at changing the conversation, and Mayor Funkhouser did that out of the gate. Issues like economic development, public safety, schools, the decrepit sewer system, and crumbling neighborhood infrastructure were discussed in depth for the first time in years. He faced hard topics, with no easy answers, but he was a leader who was willing to try.

Within months of Mayor Funkhouser taking office the city had its first economic development incentive policy and the days of willy-nilly TIF spending were over. Within two years a task force was developing ideas to promote economic activity in the urban core. Within twenty months a weekly city discussion was televised to tackle five key areas where city services did not meet the expectations of residents. Within thirty months a plan to help to our schools was rolled out. And within three years the city had reached an agreement with the EPA to rebuild a newer, greener sewer system.

When you are fighting to change the status quo, to change a system, which benefits and protects a vocal and well-connected few, you will sometimes fight alone. Mayor Funkhouser did that time and time again, sometimes with success and sometimes with frustration. A leader cannot be afraid to lose a few battles on the way to winning the war.

Often times a leader watches as his goal becomes reality, even though his public stature is minimal. Harry Truman said “It is amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit.” Mayor Funkhouser would rather have his goal accomplished than receive the credit, and that stuns most politicians. They can’t understand such a selfless and a-political approach. That is why the Mayor quietly removed one simple word from his slogan so that a 67 million dollar neighborhood improvement package could move forward. His slogan was far less important than creating jobs, focusing on schools and fixing neighborhoods. It is why he often gives ordinances to council members instead of introducing them himself. And it is why he gives credit where it is due, even to his opposition.

Occasionally leadership requires that you stay strong in the midst of a storm. Those who don’t want change that benefits regular folks have issued blow after blow. But through the storm, Mayor Funkhouser has stood tall, fighting, and winning, for his citizens.

Leaders take many forms, but the bottom line is do they lead for you? Mayor Funkhouser has heard your voice at over 100 town halls. He may lead the city, but it is your voice that leads him.

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