Development sprawls, traffic snarls, smog settles in, racial tensions erupt, the gap between the haves and the have-nots widens. Despite the remarkable economic renaissance of the greater Los Angeles area in recent years, we've got more than enough unfinished public business to tackle.
The question is: Who's going to tackle it?
An increasingly popular lament around town is that all the leaders are gone, and no one seems to know where we'll find the next generation of leadership. It's true. Dramatic changes in the institutional landscape of Los Angeles in the '90s have brought about the disappearance of many of our leading corporate citizens, just as the diversity of the interests to be represented has multiplied into dizzying complexity.
But the hand-wringing is misplaced. It doesn't take an archeologist to find the new leaders to take Los Angeles into the new millennium. The fact is, they're there. What's missing is a civic room in which they can come together.
It wasn't that many years ago that I learned firsthand the breadth and power of the indigenous leadership base of Los Angeles. The LEARN effort brought 635 leaders from labor, civil rights, education, business and more together weekly over a period of six months to hammer out a framework for public school reform. This group--which broke into seven committees ranging from governance to on-site school social services and parental involvement--was analogous to Congress and the state Legislature, where representatives of the people and various interest groups negotiate with each other, in this case to formulate a plan that would best help children achieve.
This wasn't leadership by sound bite or by ceremonial baby-kissing or by public opinion polls. This meant people--most of whom had never talked to one another before--sitting down in the same room, meeting after meeting. It meant giving them a framework in which they could debate passionate differences. It meant occasionally stopping them just short of rolling up their sleeves and coming to blows. It meant demanding that they bring their constituencies along with them down paths they might never have gone but for these meetings.
The result was a plan unanimously adopted by the Los Angeles school board in 1993, one that has fostered a slow but irreversible process of public school reform. Ten years ago, with a teachers' strike underway and distrust rife throughout our community over education issues, no one would have thought any form of consensus for radical change was possible.
Los Angeles can do it again. The leaders are there in hundreds of community-based organizations and labor unions and among a whole new generation of chief executives who now run high technology start-ups, multimedia companies and more. This question is: How do we create a common room to which they can be invited? We need a place that gives them the opportunity to make their leadership legs seaworthy and to learn that leaders from widely divergent segments of our society can agree on common purposes and fashion groundbreaking solutions, whatever their differences in approach or beliefs.
Here's how: First, we remind ourselves that leadership--by which I mean unifying our values to reach a common purpose--is fun. We've just benefited from a generation of corporate CEOs who understood that; another generation, perhaps very different in personality, should be coming along in their wake.
Second, we must give leaders a place to learn how to hold the reins. Los Angeles has terrific and unique training grounds for leadership, whether it's programs like the Coro Foundation or the real-life experience provided daily for the hundreds of members of city boards and commissions.
Third, we must give our new leaders room to make mistakes. You don't plant a garden and then pull up the plants every day to see how the roots are doing. Tough public issues take months--even years--to tackle, as we know from school reform. We need to let potential leaders know that they've got room to work out imperfections without everyone--including the press--jumping down their throats.
Finally, we need the city's established leadership to invite its new and emerging leadership to step forward and dip their toes in the passionately exciting waters of public life. Whether the issue is transportation or hard-core poverty or the quality of life, I believe the LEARN model--in which hundreds of leaders were given a framework and process for public engagement on a critical issue--should be replicated many times over as Los Angeles enters the next century.
We've done it before. We can do it again.