The gift of leadership

Richard Ridings, P.E.
APWA President

I am borrowing the title of this editorial from the book authored by Mark Levin, who facilitated an APWA leadership conference for our chapter officers just weeks ago. And, I couldn't agree more—leadership is a gift given and is often the key to how we define ourselves in life. The word "leader" may bring up visions of a Patton, Pope Paul, or Peter Drucker—all legends in their own time. But leadership, as we learned at the conference, plays out on a daily basis in how we perform as individuals in relation to our peers, our employees, our church groups, our kid's football team, and children in general (ours or others').

Becoming a leader is oftentimes merely a series of decision-points in our lives occurring at opportune moments which strengthen our character, define our value system, establish our confidences, and feed our successes.

One of the questions raised during the program was, who or what impacted your leadership style? In reflecting on my own life, three people immediately jump to mind—my dad, a Marine Corps DI who got me up at 4:30 a.m. to go fishing, and later to work in the garden with him. Harsh, you might say, but this habit brought a healthy structure to my life and taught me a discipline that is one of the foundations of a strong leader. This was balanced by my mom, who taught me to smile and pray through the most difficult personal challenges. The deep faith and commitment of my parents have always been a light for me to follow.

The other person was my grandmother, who paid me 25 cents, a princely sum to an eight-year-old, to hoe her flower garden. Her lesson was, there are beautiful as well as economic rewards for achievement as there are consequences for lack of it. That lesson in leadership has never lost its significance; it is as true today as it was then. Leaders act. If you "work your garden" regardless of your profession, you quickly develops a sense of deep appreciation for your team members.

The 143 chapter leaders who came to Kansas City in late February had similar stories. Their life course was often changed by exposure to an adult—family member, friend or boss—who cared enough about them to help direct a behavior, give moral support, or push their self-esteem up a notch. Their affiliation with APWA also has had a positive impact on their careers and in enhancing their leadership skills.

I have often said, "I am a product of APWA." Throughout my 34-year membership I have had wonderful opportunities to utilize my talents, expand my relationships, and hone my leadership skills working with colleagues who shared mutual respect and common interests. The time I spent in my volunteer commitment to APWA has been paid back tenfold in friendships, industry knowledge, and personal confidence building.

I suspect that everyone reading this article has had moments of personal leadership excellence, moments that you reacted to as a true leader but to which you were predisposed because of life experiences. After all, you don't have to be called a "leader" to be one. But I believe that a leader who has received this "gift of leadership" has one obligation: to "pass it on."

APWA's chapter, regional, to national structure is particularly conducive to allowing any member to become involved in a leadership role for this organization. And, we need you. It may just be that time in your professional life to contact your chapter president and say, I'm ready to "Pass It On."

Infrastructure Facts

1. Seventy percent of peak hour traffic occurs in congested conditions, with a cost to the U.S. economy of $34 billion in wasted time and fuel in the 10 most congested urban areas. (Source: FHWA)

2. Funding for water infrastructure investment has remained flat for a decade. For 2002, Congress appropriated $1.35 billion for wastewater infrastructure, which represents about eleven percent of the annual need nationally. (Source: US EPA)

3. In the last twenty years, nearly three-fourths of the municipal landfills in the U.S. have closed. Seventeen percent of the nation's solid waste is handled by waste-to-energy plants. More than 9,000 local governments have curbside collection of recyclables, and over 3,000 have yard waste composting programs. In 1972 it cost $8.4 billion to manage non-hazardous solid waste. The total cost increased nearly ten times by 2000. (Source: US EPA)