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Leading Communities: Changing Paradigms and Earning Employee Allegiance

Successful organizations are dynamic, not static, always looking for a better way of doing business. With a vision of what they want to become, they set goals that make the vision a reality.

Their employees have a clear understanding of the mission and feel a driving commitment that sets the organization in motion.

There are two key components to leading a dynamic, visionary organization: First, the ability to transform a community’s old paradigm into a new, widely held and well-defined community vision; and second, the capacity to create a unique environment in which employees feel an alignment with and a deep commitment to the ideals and mission of the organization.

Changing Paradigms

I’ve been asked many times why I went to Rawlins, Wyoming, to be their first city manager. In fact, my wife’s mother said to her upon viewing Rawlins for the first time, “Why did John bring you to this forsaken place?” Old timers from the area used to say, “Rawlins isn’t the end of the earth, but you can see it from here!”

What drew us to this windswept, dust-blown community of twelve-thousand people? It was a vision of what the community could become. A key group of people from the Gear Up for Growth Committee began shaping a new paradigm for Rawlins. This group was committed and dedicated to a new vision of the city. They had politically orchestrated a change in the form of government from strong mayor to council/manager by a slim margin of twenty-one votes.

They wanted the yellowish hue filtered out of their drinking water. They wanted to eliminate the annual infestation of freshwater shrimp that traveled through their seventy-five-year-old wood-stave transmission line. They wanted parks, playgrounds, and a community recreation center. But most of all, they wanted to change the image of Rawlins from a community that had squandered much of its municipal wealth to one respected by its sister cities for its wise use of taxpayer dollars, efficient services, and technology-savvy staff. They wanted to instill a new pride in every aspect of city government. In 1981, Rawlins, Wyoming, was clearly a fresh canvas to work on.

Where does a leader begin when confronted with a challenge like this? How do you bring a community together to create a shared vision with common goals? One of the first things I did was convene the city council to discuss their vision and major goals for the community. This meeting had the makings of becoming a very contentious affair. Remember, the form of government passed by only twenty-one votes, so there was no consensus about the community’s future direction.

Not only was Rawlins geographically divided by the Union Pacific mainline, it was racially divided as well. Two council members represented the south side of the tracks. The south side had one-third of the population, but a majority of the community infrastructure needs, including leaky water mains, collapsing sewer lines, a city park that had returned to its native condition, dilapidated housing, and no fire station.

During the first goal-setting session, I asked the council members to set aside the fact that they were elected from different areas of the city and focus on the greater community needs. The meeting went amazingly well. The city council agreed on an overall vision for the community. And, the south side of Rawlins garnered the majority of number-one priorities on the city council’s list of goals.

Significant changes occurred because of the goals and new vision. Within four years, six parks and playgrounds were either constructed or reconstructed, a new fire station was built on the south side, housing rehabilitation grants were secured, and the city accounting and utility billing system became fully automated.

However, the greatest achievement for the council was their newfound ability to articulate with one voice and enunciate one vision to state officials. Conveying one clearly defined vision got impressive results and helped the city secure grants from the state’s substantial infrastructure account.

Each year when the freshwater shrimp infested the water system the city became the subject of unfavorable news articles across the country. The city council used this negative media coverage to convince the state it needed assistance building a water filtration plant. It worked! A water treatment plant was constructed to eliminate the yellowish colored water and the shrimp. The state granted half the capital construction money. Within seven to eight years, the state of Wyoming also funded 60 percent of the replacement costs for the seventy-five-year-old, twenty-six-mile, wood-stave pipeline. That was progress!

The ability to form a unified voice and make significant progress in a community starts with leaders who analyze the past as they contemplate the future. They consider the history and traditions, unique physical characteristics, nature and driving force of the economy, and the core community values. They capture in words their dreams and ambitions for a renewed community, bearing in mind what it is that they want to bequeath to the next generation.

A wise city manager discovers early on the community’s vision for the future and, if it has not been developed fully, orchestrates the process to bring it about. It’s the manager’s job to help the city council understand a city is more than a series of connecting streets that share a common water and sewer system dotted by an occasional park or playground. Instead, it is a dynamic laboratory where paradigms are changed, where diverse individual dreams, ambitions, and economic interests are intertwined in a community fabric called “vision.”

Earning Employee Respect

An excellent leader will not only help break down paradigms and instill vision but also find a way to earn the respect and win the heart and soul of the people who work in public organizations. Public employees don’t have the same tools a private company has to motivate people. A public employee cannot earn an equity interest in a company nor receive shares or dividends, six figure bonuses, or trips to exotic places. The public’s business is conducted under a unique set of rules and ethical considerations.

The key to developing a unique environment in which employees have a deep-seated commitment to the ideals and mission found in some organizations is summarized in the words of Mark Willes, former chair and CEO of Times Mirror Company:

People will work for money, but they will die for something they believe in deeply. They will give their all for a cause to which they are committed. If a leader is to lead, he or she must kindle the passion of the organization, give energy rather than take it away, and help people feel purpose.1

There is a connection between the visioning and goal-setting process and helping employees become fully engaged participants in a public enterprise. Exceptional organizations have a shared vision, common goals, a clear sense of purpose, a mission statement, and guiding principles or values. The process of identifying shared values creates an effective bridge to the heart and soul of the people with whom we work.

How can an organization that is stagnating in the safety and security of an old operating paradigm move into a brave new world? Henry Kissinger once said, “The task of the leader is to get people from where they are to where they have not been. The public does not fully understand the world into which it is going. Leaders must invoke an alchemy of great vision.”2

Bringing about a new operating paradigm has never been more challenging than in my present setting. Richland, Washington, was built on the Hanford Nuclear Reservation during World War II to house people working on the super secret Manhattan Project—the effort to build an atomic bomb. It was a government town in every respect. The government owned the houses, schools, stores, and utility systems.

Consequently, when the City of Richland was incorporated in 1958, it inherited all the government-run systems and mentality. These systems all came with pages of rules, regulations, and

detailed procedures on how things were to be done—the old operating paradigm.

In August 2001, after six months on the job, I wrote a memo to the city council describing what I thought needed to take place:

As the Board of Directors of the Municipal Corporation, I invite you to participate with the staff and me in what I have called an “odyssey of discovery.” It is a process by which we will discuss and agree upon the core governing principles or values that we would like to espouse as an organization.

At present our operating manuals and policies continue to thicken as more situations and conditions are confronted and a “rule” or “regulation” promulgated. We can’t do away with these operating manuals entirely, but certainly we can separate the minimally essential regulation from the rest. In a values-based environment, employees are empowered to make certain decisions within the framework of the agreed upon core governing values of the organization. We want to unleash the energy in this organization that is bound up in rules.

The process of identifying and agreeing upon the core values of the City of Richland has been challenging. There were those who advocated and, in fact, helped to continue the old government paradigm. They were deeply invested in the policy manuals and had a difficult time imagining an operating environment without a lot of structure and prescribed ways of accomplishing each task. They enjoyed the safety and security of the current system. Flexibility and innovation were regularly sacrificed on the altar of “one size fits all.”

There was a larger group sitting on the fence. Some viewed this emphasis on values as a “flavor of the month,” like the Total Quality Management movement or the Remarkable! Resilient! Resourceful! Ready! Richland motto. These approaches to bring about change were viewed by employees with cynicism, without substance, depth, or commitment.

Why should Richland employees believe that shared values would be any different? I suggested that a values-oriented system would give greater flexibility to the employee in figuring out the answers to a question or issue posed by internal or external customers. The employee would have a set of agreed-upon values along with supporting statements describing the general intent. Expected outcomes would be creativity, innovation, and empowerment of employees.

There would be less emphasis on “knowing all the rules” and more emphasis on “understanding our governing values” and acting responsibly based upon them. We would still have policy manuals, but hopefully they would diminish over time. There is a tremendous power and energy that is unleashed in a person who is authorized to act upon shared principles or values to get a job done!

Fortunately, we had a significant group of people who saw the wisdom of the new paradigm of shared values. They were identified early in the process and volunteered to be champions in helping the organization transition from a rules- to values-oriented culture. From the values identification process, in which every employee participated, the governing board and employees agreed to fly under the flag of Integrity, Teamwork, and Excellence. The values champions defined what each value meant and held training sessions on implementation.

These universally shared values make up the building blocks of our city organization. They have become the basic structure upon which employees are empowered to make decisions and resolve problems.

Moving to a new way of doing business will always be a challenge. Leaders must create an atmosphere where new paradigms can develop and mature. Every day people show up to work and go through the motions without being fully engaged in the mission of the enterprise. Most people respond positively to change when they perceive it will help them perform their work better. They want to work in an environment where their contribution is valued. They want to be associated with an organization that kindles their passion and is worthy of emulation.

Changing paradigms in any organization occurs most effectively when the workforce is thoroughly involved and committed to the ideals and mission of the enterprise. As employees are immersed in the process, they create a widely held vision, goals that support that vision, a clear sense of mission, and universally agreed upon principles or values that guide the day-to-day operations of the enterprise. The processes of visioning and involving can help leaders change paradigms and earn employee allegiance—in turn producing successful public organizations.

Painting: ©Charles Wysocki, Inc. “Pete’s Gambling Hall” painted by Charles Wysocki. Reproduced with permission through Mosaic Licensing, Inc. For information regarding Charles Wysocki artwork, please call (925) 934-0889.

About the Speaker
John C. Darrington is the city manager of Richland, Washington. He has worked as the city administrator of Gillette, Wyoming; Rawlins, Wyoming; and Soda Springs, Idaho. After earning a BS from BYU in 1970, Darrington earned his MPA from BYU in 1972.

Darrington was recently honored by the Marriott School and the George W. Romney Institute of Public Management with the 2003 N. Dale Wright Distinguished Alumnus Award (See news article, p. 27). This article is adapted from Darrington’s speech given at the award banquet 9 May 2003.


  1. Mark Willes, “Principles of Leadership,” Exchange, Marriott School at Brigham Young University, (Annual Report Issue, 1995/96), 25.
  2. Thomas Peters and Robert Waterman, Jr., In Search of Excellence: Lessons from America’s Best-Run Companies (New York: Warner Books, 1982), 282.

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