When I began my year as City Council chairman, a colleague told me there would be two special days to cherish -- my first day on the job and my last. I'm happy to be returning to the ranks in 2004, but there are some benefits to the chairman's job.
You get a corner office at City Hall. You can take some unilateral actions (I got rid of cell phones and other council perks). As the public face of the council, you get more attention.
But there's a more important benefit. My year as chairman taught me about the responsibility of leadership.
When you're a normal, garden-variety councilman you have relative freedom. You can position yourself against the council, act the role of "lone ranger," vote "no" a lot. Being the "loyal opposition" can be fun.
The job of chairman is different. You must lead, and that requires persuading others to go along. Otherwise, things bog down, and nothing gets accomplished. To lead, you have to rise above narrow interests and look at the big picture.
For the most part, the deliberations of the City Council are collegial and free from rancor. But there's no denying the existence of factions. We're divided by race, party, economics, interests, personality -- just like the citizens we serve.
On each issue, the combination of forces may shift. The chairman has to negotiate, cajole, beg, and plead to reach a consensus. And once you reach that consensus, you have to support it. No retreating to the comfort and freedom of being the loyal opposition. The responsibility of leadership requires that you find common ground, bring doubters into the fold, and assemble a majority of at least seven votes.
The process can be messy. Finding a compromise opens you up to criticism from both sides. Allies accuse you of abandoning your principles. But the responsibility of leadership includes flexibility and creativity. You work for the best deal you can get, consistent with your beliefs and your commitment to your constituents. Stalemate benefits no one.
Consider the case of Trent Lott, Republican senator from Mississippi and former Senate majority leader. Lott was known as a conservative's conservative, but once he assumed the leadership position, his role changed. He moderated his language. He looked for compromise. He had a responsibility to get things done, not just stand on the sidelines and carp. And for his efforts he was accused of caving in to the Democrats. The current majority leader, Tennessee's Bill Frist, is on the same hot seat. In the debate over the Medicare prescription drug bill, he drew fire from both ends of the political spectrum. But Frist worked to achieve what could be achieved and to pass a bill that fulfilled a promise to senior citizens. That's the responsibility of leadership.
Working on a much smaller scale, on local instead of national issues, that's the lesson I've learned as council chairman. Our legislative system depends on compromise. You can remain "pure" and above the fray. Or you can accept the responsibility, engage in give and take, and pass an ordinance that helps the people.
As 2003 ends, I'm passing on the responsibility to my successor and returning to the rank and file. What I've learned about leadership will make me a better, more effective councilman. Leading the council is like herding cats -- and I've got the scratches to prove it. But I've learned that people of good will, working together in an atmosphere of respect, can get a lot done to help their fellow citizens.
Brent Taylor, who represents Cordova, was chairman of the Memphis City Council in 2003.