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Michigan Mayors Carol Shafto, Dayne Walling, George Heartwell and Others Talk about Effective Leadership

By Joe Vandermeulen, Ph.D.

The times are hard and everyone’s taking hits in Michigan: unemployment is over 12 percent and poverty rates have climbed to over 16 percent. Real estate values are down and cities are struggling to balance their budgets, making deep cuts everywhere. We might forgive some mayors for feeling overwhelmed or downright frustrated with their jobs. But that’s not what I found.

With research support from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, I recently completed leadership interviews with dozens of mayors and city managers across Michigan and the Midwest. What I found was a diverse collection of very scrappy and undeterred community leaders. Michigan’s mayors displayed a spirited drive and focused optimism, confident that their cities would prevail as vibrant, high-quality places. Consistent with the recent research on adaptive leadership, these elected officials have chosen to face the difficult times directly, embrace a long-term positive vision, engage and empower citizens and staff, and change the process through experimentation while seeking a new path.


Flint’s Mayor Dayne Walling admits that the negotiations for pay reductions and staff cuts have been painful, personally and professionally. But, he says these troubles had to be tackled head-on while believing with certainty that the future is brighter. Though the changes are wrenching, Mayor Walling believes that the city will reach stability and sustainability by the two upward pressures of economic development and citizen engagement. “We can’t think that there’s a way to shrink our way out of this problem,” he said. “We will find a way to make investments in the future at the same time that we continue to provide a level of service that’s acceptable.”


Mayor George K. Heartwell of Grand Rapids has had to struggle through budget cutting sessions too, including an accumulated reduction in the city’s workforce of about 27 percent. But his job includes articulating a vision for the city that can be embraced by others. He sees a progressive city that cares for its children, uses renewable energy, offers public transit, and protects the environment. So, there must be both cuts now and investments in the future. Mayor Heartwell says that the city faces real challenges and “it means some transformation, it means doing some things differently, but once we get through it, I think we are in a better position than most other cities to really take off.”


More than other leadership roles, mayors depend on relationships and a commitment to empower citizens. Battle Creek’s Mayor Susan Baldwin says listening is never passive; it’s about learning and understanding. “I make sure that I go to the neighborhood meetings and I participate in them,” she says. “When a group pulls together an initiative, I go find out. It may not be something I stay with, but I find out so that I can understand the various interests.”


The best thing you can do as a mayor, according to John Hieftje of Ann Arbor, is to keep the lines of communication wide open, first with citizens and then the city council—as a close second. “You can’t get anything done alone, so you have to be able to convince people of the worthiness of the idea.” It really is about relationships, he says. “Without the ability to work well with others, you won’t go very far—or long.”

Mayor Hieftje also continually encourages citizens to take an active role in the community, facilitating that involvement. “I am a big believer in citizen responsibility,” he said. So, if someone has a complaint, he looks for a way to engage that person in finding solutions, maybe on a committee or working directly on the problem. A good example is the Nature Area Preservation Group, he says. Their efforts “leverage the work of hundreds of volunteers every year to remove invasive species, do plantings, and keep the parks up. We no longer have to mow them.”


Sometimes leadership involves acting outside of familiar authority and breaking with the common wisdom. In Ludington, the city council opposed Mayor John Henderson’s suggestion of developing a skate park along the waterfront. People worried about vandalism and youth gangs. But Mayor Henderson was convinced that a skate park would add value and a popular focus to the city’s waterfront park, as well as offering a place for young people to hang out. In this instance, he decided to respond as a citizen by raising the money and support from local civic groups and private donors. He recruited a friend, the police chief, to join him in making the rounds. “You know,” Mayor Henderson said, “sometimes, you have to lead by example.”


Leadership is said to be the process of influencing others to achieve a set of common goals. According to the mayors I spoke with, that influence derives from service to others and the community as a whole. Alpena Mayor and Michigan Municipal League President Carol Shafto says the work combines a love of place and a practical, long-term view. “I’m the cheerleader-in-chief,” she said, “I just passionately love this town.” She believes the aesthetic and cultural amenities that make Alpena a special place offer hope for future growth. “We have to be in this for the long haul,” she said. “We have to look at what we want 20 years from now and plan to get it.” mml logo

Adaptive Leadership Gaining Prominence

Over the last two decades, the public fascination with leaders and leadership has grown tremendously. lists over 50,000 publications related to leadership. Dozens of centers and thousands of experts across the country provide corporate, educational, nonprofit or governmental leadership training. Universities offer courses and graduate degrees in leadership and most major cities offer some form of community leader training.
Though once considered a function of command and control, leadership today is described as a process in which the leader influences the actions of others to achieve a common goal. According to the authors of the Leadership Challenge, one of the most popular leader training books, there are five key practices of leadership:

  • Model the way (e.g., exemplary behavior);

  • Inspire a shared vision (e.g., identify exciting possibilities),

  • Challenge the process (e.g., experimentation);

  • Enable others to act (e.g., foster collaboration); and

  • Encourage the heart (e.g., celebrate and appreciate).

Given the turbulent and competitive world economy and the political, environmental and social challenges most communities face, it is not surprising to find that adaptive leadership has gained prominence lately. Adaptive leadership is about mobilizing people to take on challenges and thrive. According to The Practice of Adaptive Leadership successful adaptation builds on the past, but discards what is not useful, engages an experimental mind-set and improvisation, and relies on diversity or distributed intelligence.

Joe VanderMeulen, Ph.D., is executive director of Land Information Access Association, Traverse City. You may reach him at 231-929-3696 or



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