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Bridgebuilders: Look to the Local Level

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Thomas Barth
August 18, 2017

This past year in separate keynote addresses, two respected federal administrators stressed the importance of leaders as bridgebuilders in government, or those with the personal qualities and skills to forge coalitions across individuals and groups with differences to address pressing challenges. Robert Gates, former CIA Director and Secretary of Defense, lamented the loss of such bridgebuilders in Congress, making his job exceedingly difficult and unpleasant. At the ASPA National Conference, former Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen stressed the importance of relationships built on trust when dealing with natural and man-made disasters and other challenges where multiple groups must work together to find solutions. However, in a brief conversation afterwards, he shared that he would have a hard time identifying officials today who possess these qualities and skills.

I was struck by the pessimism of these remarks by such distinguished and accomplished administrators, but realizing that they are speaking from a federal government or national perspective, I have been on a quest to identify leaders who are bridgebuilders in the local regions in which I work in Charlotte and Wilmington, NC. My goal is to have conversations with such leaders across the sectors to distill the personal qualities and skills characteristic of such leaders. As scholars such as John and Barbara Bryson documented in an excellent PAR Symposium in 2015, the reality is that I am finding such bridgebuilders EVERYWHERE at the local level, forging public private partnerships, engaging diverse, divided communities and engaging stakeholders to find creative solutions to pressing challenges. The reason quite frankly is that they have no choice!

Bridge The GapLet me provide a few examples. In Wilmington, there are such bridgebuilders leading efforts to address the opioid epidemic, bringing economic development that raises all boats, solutions to the confederate monument controversy that heals rather than further divides and conversations to improve understanding between police and residents in high tension neighborhoods.

In Charlotte, creative public-private partnerships abound to provide funding for public art, address economic opportunity for residents trapped in poverty, and build a cultural arts campus downtown.

I am finding that the people who effectively lead such efforts possess innate qualities and skills such as listening, inclusiveness, an appreciation for the delicate balance between process and action, and perhaps above all a sense of humility that they don’t have all the answers and need help from others to first ask the right questions.

Such leadership qualities are not in everyone’s DNA, but they can be learned to some degree by role modeling and also reinforced in our MPA programs where we are preparing the future leaders in the government and nonprofit sectors.

So while we may be dismayed by what we often witness at the federal level (at least on the surface), look to the local level if you want to find and learn from bridgebuilding leaders!


Author:Ā Tom Barth is a Professor of Public Administration and Director of the Master of Public Administration (MPA) program at UNC Charlotte. He teaches, conducts research, and consults in the areas of organization development, human resource management, strategic planning, facilitation and public administration ethics.

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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