Leader + Leader + Leader…(A Metro Story)

A tree blooms in Medellín – a civic spirit tended to by a succession of leaders.

As much as leaders “represent” the people they lead, they set their organization (city, country…) on a trajectory. We often talk about a leader’s work as the product of what they did during the time they led, but rarely do we look to link up the work of the leader(s) that preceded them and that of the leaders that follow. Dynamic changes carried out across an entire organization are too enormous to accomplish within the typical term of one administration. While every leader has a unique set of values and experiences that define how others see them (and how they envision their own legacy), we understand that the first action a new leader must take is to determine her degree of commitment in picking up the thread from her predecessor.

A powerful example of this lives in Medellín, Colombia – a city of almost two million laid across the bottom of the mountainous Aburrá Valley. While Medellín is a place that many people know as the one-time center of a powerful and violent drug cartel, it has been a demonstration space for progressive social policies carried out over decades to benefit the entire populace. During a four-hour walking tour through Real City Tours, I asked our guide Julio what he thought of the current mayor, who had visited an inner city park in the Bay Area to learn about community transformation through investment in dynamic play spaces for people of all ages.

Julio’s reaction surprised me a bit; rather than gushing about how incredible he was, how progressive, etc., he pointed to how the current mayor was the latest in a line of several that successfully built upon the work of former leaders – the metro system being the most visible and tangible product. First approved by the government in 1982, and opened in 1995, he explained that its success was due to a succession of mayors supporting the work of their predecessors and not trying to assert their own particular stamp on the project. The capital city Bogotá, with approximately four times the population of Medellín, has had a tumultuous and fractured process over many decades, with current projections of a functioning metro system by 2024. Rather than seamless forward motion, new leaders have gone backwards to revisit old agreements that “weren’t done properly” – from design to budget to timeframe. Systemic disintegrity such as this squanders precious resources – money and expertise that could move on to other projects – and has a daily effect on a populace in need of an essential service.

He described his city’s leader as a link in a long chain of leaders who continued the work of the mayors that came before him. What struck me was the idea that, rather than describe a leader in terms of their words and persona – those outward traits that leaders in all fields wield as tools of influence (or control) – we can view a leader’s success through the lens of how well they carry forward the constructive trajectories of their predecessors. By no means does this mean moving forward without a critical lens towards improvement – process and execution can always be improved. But sometimes the simplest and truest leadership move is to recognize that an idea is beautiful and necessary – and it needs nourishment and protection during our time as stewards.

23 years after its first trip, the metro system still looks brand new. Julio asked us if we had seen even one spot of graffiti or garbage on any train or station (we hadn’t). In a city of extreme gaps in wealth and opportunity, the public transit system is held as a communal treasure. Not only is it civic-centered in its practicality, in the unifying force of the access it provides to residents of this vast city – it also serves as proof that optimism and aspiration are tangible agents of transformation, and that a multitude of leaders, in spite of political or stylistic differences, shared a mutual commitment over the course of decades to bring it to life. Sometimes the system works.

Metrocable extensions up both sides of the valley give the poorer hillside communities safe and quick access to the center of the city. 

At times it is appropriate to put a practice to rest – a policy or initiative that is anachronous with current realities and needs. At times the predecessor’s leadership was so toxic and destructive that the only viable alternative is to wipe the slate clean and launch a new trajectory. But in most instances the transition of leadership demands a certain degree of continuity, be it the look of a product or the service provided by a municipal government.

Leaders not only set a tone across the geography their role encompasses; the feelings they generate with their actions, demeanor and emotional intelligence (or lack thereof) determine the day-to-day working lives of the many people who work for her. When a leader is able to balance the visionary aspects of their work with the managerial ones, they can amplify their organization’s trajectory by attracting other great minds to join their team. Those people opt in to a vision that resonates with them – and a leader will also see the opportunity to grow deeper and more diverse roots to their organizational tree. We don’t want people coming in to fit a rigid framework; innovation and improvement (experienced by the recipients of the organization’s service) can come from every facet and “level” of the team – if we let them.

The impact of a leader’s (plus leader, plus leader) work is as much about the results achieved as it is about the momentum they generate (or stifle) towards substantive change and growth. At times the first and most powerful change is psychological in nature – someone whose vision and optimism get people across a big system thinking and feeling positively about their shared endeavor (of course we see examples of leaders who gain a following by stoking fear and anger). Confident leaders understand that their tenure is as much about producing good results as it is ensuring competent successors. Smart, capable people will show up at your door when the trajectory of your organization demonstrates integrity and cohesion through cycles of leadership.

I have led my school for 2.5 years. I know my two predecessors and continue to work with one of them. But that only gets us back 13 years. One day a few months ago, a gentleman came into the front office to drop off some old yearbooks. It turns out he was principal of my school in the late 1980’s. We talked a lot about our recent work: optimizing the learning experience in every class by having a rotating bell schedule and eliminating A-F points-based grades and instituting feedback on specific academic standards and life skills. He shared the question they were centered around during his tenure: “How do we make environments conducive to learning?” 

The idea of “student-centered” practices is now common, perhaps (happily) a cliché; not the case 30 years ago. They asked a brave and lucid question then – it generated a surge of energy and ideas that guide us today as we continue to set down the rails. My hope is that all of our efforts are helping to answer that same question first asked when I myself was a middle schooler.

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