What I’ve Learned about Leadership from Reading Obituaries

Otis White, President, Civic Strategies, Inc.

January 11, 2012

Otis White
Otis White is a community consultant based in Atlanta who has written about cities and their leaders for more than 30 years. He is the president of Civic Strategies, Inc. and is a former editor and publisher of Georgia Trend magazine. He was a columnist for Governing magazine about urban issues for five years.

This may sound a little odd, but for several years I’ve been collecting newspaper obituaries from around the country. Not just any ones, but obits about highly regarded civic leaders, a group I call “super-civic leaders.” My aim is to find out what they did to be so highly respected, and how they did it. I’ve come to some conclusions.
I’ll tell you my conclusions in a moment, but let me tell you first how I choose these people and introduce you to a few from my collection. To begin, I’m not looking for elected officials – mayors, city council members, county commissioners – or for executives of major community nonprofits, such as chamber of commerce presidents or community foundation executives. I’m looking for people who, at least initially, started as volunteers and found something intoxicating about civic work.
I’m also looking for people who’ve made such a difference in their communities that their obits appeared on the newspaper’s front page or the first page of the metro section. The kind of people whose funerals attract mayors, governors, and other prominent folks. These super-civic leaders could have been successes in any field (and some, in fact, were highly successful in other ways), but at a point in their lives, they chose to devote themselves to the places they lived.
Why? Well, unfortunately, obituaries aren’t good at answering that question. And my own experience with super-civic leaders is that they aren’t good at explaining their motivations either. My theory is that they simply tried civic work, found it deeply satisfying, and, like most of us, stuck with something they did well.
What’s interesting about the 50 or so obituaries I’ve collected is that, in almost every other respect, these people have little or nothing in common. They were business executives and neighborhood activists. Lawyers, entrepreneurs, retirees, and activists. Republicans, Democrats, or completely nonpartisan. Male, female, black, white, Latino. Several were born in other countries. Some were Forbes 500 wealthy. Others seemed never to have had two nickels to rub together.
Let me introduce you to five from my collection. There’s Warren Hellman, the quirky investment banker from San Francisco who loved politics, bluegrass music, civic causes, and nearly everything about his city. (The things he didn’t like he worked hard to change.) On the other side of the country was Rob Stuart of Philadelphia whose occupation was unclear to most who met him. (The Philadelphia Inquirer described him as a communications consultant.) What is clear is that he was a passionate advocate for civic improvements and effective lobbyist at city hall. “He was like the 18th member of city council,” one council member said of him.
There was Noel Cunningham, a charismatic Irishman who turned his restaurant into Denver’s unofficial civic club, where mayors, governors, and do-gooders met and planned projects – always with Cunningham at the center of things. “Forget paying for the meal,” one nonprofit leader said. “You’d walk out of there with a checklist of things he wanted you to do.”
Seattle’s Kent Kammerer didn’t have a place for meetings, but he had a talent for creating serious discussions. He started a monthly forum called the Seattle Neighborhood Coalition at which political and civic leaders appeared for fair-minded but tough grillings. A retired teacher with gray hair and a bushy beard, Kammerer used these discussions to write about how to make Seattle better. He was so knowledgeable of the city and its neighborhoods that one journalist called him a “mossback Yoda,” after the wise and wizened Star Wars character.
Finally, there’s Eleanor Jasaitis, a saintly Detroit woman about whom a book should be written. In 1968, as Detroit was experiencing a tidal wave of white flight, Jasaitis, her husband, and five children went the opposite way, moving from the suburbs to the city so she could work with the poor. Over the next 43 years, Jasaitis’ nonprofit became the place presidents visited to learn about Detroit’s needs. At her funeral, 900 people, from former mayors, governors, and business leaders to the people she served, sat shoulder to shoulder in Detroit’s downtown Catholic cathedral.
Again, I can’t tell you why these people gave so much to their lives to their communities. I do know they are so rare that, when they died, people mourned them as irreplaceable.
Given their vastly different backgrounds, what did these leaders have in common? Two things, I’ve noticed: First, they brought something valuable to civic work. Sometimes it was money, more commonly it was people, energy, or ideas. In a few cases, as with Jasaitis, it was simply her moral force. Second, they gave astonishing amounts of time to their civic work.
Let me go a little deeper with both of these qualities. The old saying is that nonprofits need one of three things from board members: their time, talent, or treasure (that is, money). That’s true of super-civic leaders as well, but it understates their contributions because not everyone’s time, talents or treasure are the same. The truly great leaders bring something unexpected and sometimes unique.
Hellman, the investment banker, gave money, of course – his own and that of other wealthy San Franciscans he solicited for causes. But he also had a rare talent for solving civic problems, from government finance to bolstering Golden Gate Park. So when a civic problem needed a creative solution as well as cash, Hellman was there. And he didn’t just solve other people’s problems. He created things for the city, including a music festival called Hardly Strictly Bluegrass that brings hundreds of thousands of people each year to Golden Gate Park. Not your typical millionaire, Hellman would sometimes join musicians like Emmylou Harris and Steve Earle on the stage, plucking away on his banjo.
Almost as quirky as Hellman, though not nearly as wealthy, was Rob Stuart of Philadelphia. Stuart combined a talent for research and enthusiasm for ideas (“he was like an idea merchant,” one neighborhood leader said) with almost superhuman persistence. Among his many initiatives, he battled the railroad company CSX for four years to create a public crossing of its land near a riverside park . . . and won. Said one civic leader of Stuart and his supporters, “They weren’t rabble-rousers. They weren’t suing. They just got a lot of people together, worked nights and weekends, and wore the railroad down, and we’re all going to benefit from it for the rest of our lives.”
Cunningham introduced people he met through his restaurant, connecting people with needs to those with resources. Kammerer did something similar in Seattle through his forums.
But having access to unusual resources was only part of it. These leaders also gave incredible amounts of their time. That was true even of Hellman, who had an investment firm to run. He spent hours negotiating with San Francisco politicians on city pension reform. And Jasaitis, of course, gave 43 years of her life to rescuing a city that others had given up on.
There’s one other thing about these five super-civic leaders and most of the rest in my file: They come across in their obituaries as utterly sincere. Obituaries are almost always respectful of the dead, of course. But you can’t fake what people said of these leaders. “The world is a worse place without Noel,” one mourner said of Cunningham. His eulogist, a former governor, called him “the most persistent and selfless person I have ever met.” Said the cardinal of Detroit at Jasaitis’ funeral mass: “She was one of those special people that comes along every 100 years. . . . She was able to do things most people weren’t able to do.”
And what do these rare people tell those of us who aren’t super-civic leaders? Three things: First, it pays to be strategic, to look around for things you – and only you – can bring to civic work. It could be a new set of ideas or contacts, or a new source of funding, such as grants or some kind of private funding. This is how you go from being a volunteer to a leader.
Second, to be effective in communities, you have to be willing to put in the time. Cities are complex environments that are devilishly difficult to change, and there’s no substitute for persistence and patience. (Think of Rob Stuart’s four-year crusade to convince CSX to let people cross its land to get to a park.)
Finally, authenticity is important. Because civic work is so long term, people will sort out the sincere from the insincere. So care about your causes. It’ll draw others to your work . . . and who knows? It might win you a wonderful obituary one day.