People thinking of running for office in this year’s local elections may want to take heed of a former mayor and leadership consultant: look deep inside before you throw your hat in.
“I think probably the most important leadership competency that’s going to be required in this current environment is courage,” says Christina Benty. “Courage, and emotional regulation.”
Benty, who was the first female mayor of Golden, now runs a consulting agency, Strategic Leadership Solutions, which works with municipal governments. She’s conducting a Candidate Readiness Workshop in Castlegar on August 24. The event, which is being held both in-person and as a Zoom meeting, is being sponsored by the Regional District of Central Kootenay and local municipal governments.
“I think these days we are getting good people with big hearts who want to do a good job,” says Benty of the kind of people who stand for councils. “But it takes more than that. It takes skill building to be change-agents in the system.”
This is the third cycle of local government elections that Benty has held the workshop, and she says a lot has changed over the last decade or so. Between the pandemic, inflation, climate change, and housing, people are looking more and more towards municipal government to support them.
“I think public expectations are growing around what local government should be doing and is doing,” she says. “So it feels like the complexity of the role [of public office] has increased.”
As well, senior levels of government have offloaded services and increased governance demands on local politicians, complicating the day-to-day business of government. And adding to those pressures, social media has only intensified scrutiny – and lowered the overall level of public discourse in society.
So today’s politician has to at least comprehend the basics of economics, budgeting, labour law, actuary tables, and risk management – as well as how to serve pancakes at the Canada Day breakfast.
“Contextual intelligence is really key, being able to navigate complexity,” she says. “But it’s not just understanding the technical aspects of the job – there are the relational aspects. Emotional intelligence matters. Mental fitness matters – being able to distill complex information and be willing to make difficult decisions.”
Learning is a key
Today’s local politician has to be willing to learn, willing to admit mistakes, and willing to work with others, says Benty. Those are all long-standing attributes of good leaders.
But Benty says what a candidate thinks is not as important as how they think. She says it’s key that people go into the job ready for the intellectual challenge. You’ll be responsible for running a multi-million-dollar corporation, and decisions you make can affect generations to come, for good or ill.
“You generally get a group of well-meaning people around the table, but good intentions aren’t enough anymore,” says Benty. “You have to be willing to do the work that is appropriate, to build those relationships, build the technical skills and relational currency … to be able to look at layers of information and set aside your biases and preconceived notions about how the system works, and be willing to learn.”
Building relations with staff, building trusting relations with your council or board colleagues, and learning how to deal with conflict are also crucial. And she cautions that foregoing team-building or conflict management exercises can create problems that can derail civic governments.
‘Am I a learner?’
Candidates should also consider the real pressures they’re going to face in the community and online. No local politician has ever gone to the grocery store and not been buttonholed by a voter looking for information or to give their opinion. But these days, virulent attacks can be generated and multiply in social media, and online pressure may be putting some potential candidates off the idea of running.
“I think it’s important to realize now that our current environment of polarization and divisiveness isn’t serving us, and let’s come back to what’s important,” she says. “We all want the same thing. We can come at it in different ways. In general, we want basic services met collectively, and we want to live in communities that are attractive and thriving, where there’s a sense of community and collective responsibility to one another.”
That will take leaders with flexibility, curiosity, and a willingness to set aside the natural tendency to hit back when attacked.
If none of that gives you pause, then you may want to consider attending Benty’s workshop on the 24th. She says despite the pressures and complexities, it’s still a great feeling to help be a leader in your community.
And the one question a would-be candidate should ask themselves?
“Am I a learner?” says Benty simply. “Am I willing to put the time and energy it takes to both learn how to do the job, the intellectual preparation and engagement, but also the relational engagement into the job?”
It’s not clear how many people in the West Kootenay are asking themselves those questions. With a little more than a month to go before the campaigning starts, few people have indicated they’re interested in running. An email survey sent out by the Valley Voice asking local politicians if they planned to run again only got four positive responses from 25 village councillors and one from five mayors.
Potential candidates can pick up their nomination papers at their local municipal office now. The deadline for submitting your papers is September 9. Election day is October 15.