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Practicing the Art

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

By Jerry Newfarmer
March 4, 2016

I was reading one of my favorite authors, Sherwin B. Nuland, An Uncertain Art, Thoughts on a Life in Medicine. Nuland was a clinical professor of surgery at Yale University and winner of the National Book Award. I was taken by the following epigraph at the start of a chapter entitled, “The Whole Law of Medicine,”

Life is short, and the Art is long; the occasion fleeting; experience fallacious, and judgment difficult. The physician must not only be prepared to do what is right himself, but also to make the patient, the attendants and the externals, cooperate.

The First Aphorism
Attributed to Hippocrates, C. 400 B.C.E. 

I was struck by the parallel to the role of the professional city manager—the physician for the city. Nuland continues:

“Like the Talmudic sage Hillel’s response when he was challenged to summarize his religion while standing on one foot – that one never do to others what is hateful to oneself – the First Aphorism is medicine’s whole law; the rest is commentary. Having learned the law, one should (as Hillel enjoined his challenger after both feet were back on the ground) go and study it.” 

Which is what Nuland does in the remainder of the piece, examining each element of the First Aphorism in turn:

Life is short, and the Art is long.

The occasion fleeting.

Experience fallacious.

Judgment difficult.

And so it is with the art of city management. In humanity’s efforts to learn the Art of self-government, any practitioner’s life is indeed short. And the Art is much more complex and ever-changing than any one of us can fully understand, let alone master.


The occasion of a significant event in self-government is indeed fleeting. When an issue asserts itself (for instance, police abuse of power) or when the signal moment of decision is coming (an election), the sense of urgency presses – yet in the knowledge that the diagnosis the physician (or city manager) is making is crucial to the outcome. Even so, the wisdom of experience teaches humility – that indeed, experience can be fallacious. Certainty in the practice of the Art is hubris.

Judgment is difficult. Often the true nature of the matter isn’t the apparent nature, as is frequently the case when unethical behavior is involved. Moreover, there is always that sneaky possibility that a decision will have unintended consequences, perhaps more consequential than the solution of the problem at hand.

Notice that the second sentence fits with the responsibility of the leader in public service as well. The first task is to do what is right. The ICMA Code of Ethics reflects our commitment to doing what is right, recognizing that experience can be fallacious and judgment often difficult. The challenge of engaging (teaching, convincing) the elected body, the other leaders in the community and the public at large that what is right is actually the best decision for everyone is very much the practicing of the Art.

Practicing the Art is both endlessly interesting and challenging because it is about working with other human beings. Helping them, leading them, supporting them, and understanding their needs and psychology so that together we make our world a bit better. It challenges our knowledge of public service techniques and of human nature and taxes our interpersonal skills to draw from others and ourselves “the better angels of our nature.”

Author: Jerry Newfarmer served as city manager in Fresno and San Jose, California, as well as Cincinnati, Ohio. Newfarmer is founder and president of Management Partners, which helps local governments improve their operations. 

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