Leadership in adversity

In this issue of Public Power Magazine, I am humbled and thrilled to be in the company of some of public power’s brightest and best, as well as presidential historian and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Doris Kearns Goodwin.

I am a big Goodwin fan — my favorite book of hers is Team of Rivals, which is about President Abraham Lincoln and his cabinet. I am now reading her latest book, Leadership in Turbulent Times, in which she examines the lives of Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, and Lyndon Johnson “through the exclusive lens of leadership.” 

In the foreword, Goodwin asks “How does adversity affect the growth of leadership? Do the times make the leader or does the leader shape the times? How can a leader infuse a sense of purpose and meaning into people’s lives?” And then she proceeds to show us how the four presidents she profiles overcame jaw-dropping adversity (extreme poverty, debilitating illness, loss of loved ones, and much more) to inspire others and move our nation forward through some turbulent times, including the Civil War, the Great Depression, and World War II.

I hope you enjoy the interview with Goodwin in this issue of Public Power Magazine. Her leadership lessons, shared with all of us, can help us understand what public power leaders need to succeed in the turbulent times we are seeing in our own industry. 

The public power award winners, visionaries, trendsetters, and policymakers also featured in this issue answer Goodwin’s questions in their own ways. They share how they’ve made the most of their opportunities and the challenges they have surmounted as they work to raise the service bar in their respective communities. 

President John F. Kennedy noted that “Leadership and learning are indispensable to each other.” As I near the end of my own leadership journey here — you likely know that I am retiring from the Association at the end of 2019 — I am starting to look back on what I have learned. I think about what thoughts I can offer to those who come after me, who will have to deal with increasingly turbulent times.

If I have learned one thing during my time at the Association, it is that public power is blessed with an abundance of smart and dedicated leaders. I have traveled extensively to visit with our utility members. I am repeatedly impressed by the care and attention public power leaders pay to their mission of providing reliable, affordable, and environmentally responsible electric service in their respective communities.

However, more than that, their utilities are vital parts of their communities, reflecting the community’s values and contributing in many ways, both very tangible (like economic development) and not-so-tangible (like offering their headquarters buildings for community meetings, volunteering in schools and local causes, and helping to put on community events). They say that the first key to success is showing up, and public power leaders show up every day.

But in the increasingly divisive times in which we live, public power leaders need to see all sides of the complicated issues and technological changes we face in our communities. We must strive to find resolutions that work for everyone in them. It is hard but necessary work if we are going to remain a vital part of the cities and towns we serve.  

At the national level, public power utilities must understand our differences and surmount them to come together around our core values — affordability, reliability, environmental responsibility, and superior service to our communities. 

In our Association’s utility membership, we have large and small utilities, urban and rural utilities, customers of the Power Marketing Administrations and the Tennessee Valley Authority, and utilities in regional transmission organization regions with centralized markets (I still cannot call them “organized” markets!), utilities with a broad variety of fuel mixes and environmental challenges — I could go on cataloging all our differences.

However, our strength is in our numbers — 2,000 utilities serving 49 million customers in 49 states. Because of that, we have to hang together and continue to speak with one voice, so public power remains a force to be reckoned with in the decades ahead. “E pluribus unum” or “out of many, one,” has to be our guiding motto in the turbulent times we face.

I see the Association’s own leadership role as providing the national platform to bring public power utilities together. Our purpose, as articulated by our board, is to partner with our members “to promote public power, helping community-owned utilities deliver superior services through joint advocacy, education, and collaboration.” If we work with you to do this every day, we can achieve our vision of “shaping the future of public power to drive a new era of community-owned electric service.”

I hope the leadership lessons shared in this issue will inspire you to be the leaders who public power needs in these turbulent times. Happy reading.