Vision, Courage + Urgency=Success

Vision.
Courage.
A sense of urgency.
If you want to succeed as a city or a business, you need all three.
Two out of three, just won’t cut it. All three traits are non-negotiable.
Unless of course, you don’t really want to succeed; if you want to pay lip service you can skip one or more of the aforementioned and you’ll fool a few people but you won’t get anything done.
Vision is a big word, but it can be as simple as an idea or as complicated as a breakthrough innovation. I think it also requires a particular mindset: you have to be aspirational and you have to know where you want to take things.
Examples of vision, courage and urgency abound.
Dollar Shave Club sold this month to Unilever for $1 billion.
Fueled by a clever viral video, Dollar Shave Club took a simple idea—make it easy to buy cheap razors and solved a painful problem. Razors are expensive and they are often kept under lock and key in the pharmacy. Blades are inconvenient to buy and ridiculously priced. But Dollar Shave Club made it easy, they had the courage to go up against industry giants and they had a sense of urgency to make it happen.
A small (but growing fast) hot sauce company I’m involved with also has a simple idea. We think the market leader is old, tired, vinegary, watery and doesn’t taste good. So we created Tabanero, using premium ingredients and a complex recipe that we believe tastes great. We are a long way from a billion dollar exit, but we just gained placement at Publix, Sprouts, Lucky’s and all the big food distributors. We are on our way. We have a vision, we are fearless and we are peddling as fast as we can.
Same with another company we are heavily involved with; Celsius which seeks to disrupt the beverage industry which is filled with iconic giants such as Coke and Pepsi. But Celsius is a healthy alternative to sugary soft drinks and seeks to capture a market that doesn’t want aspartame, sugar, corn syrup, artificial flavors or preservatives. The Celsius team has courage, belief and a tremendous desire to seize the day. Working with people who exhibit these traits is an energizing experience; pun intended.
That mindset translates to cities as well.
Delray’s vision was simple: revitalize a town that had good “bones” and make it a desirable to place to live, work and play.
Now mind you, ‘live, work and play’ is not a revolutionary idea. Thousands of communities have adopted that mantra—but if you look closely only a few had the courage and the sense of urgency to make it happen.
Why?
Who knows?
But you can bank on resistance to progress, long lines of protesters, lawsuits and election challenges if you try and make change.
Delray had the courage to do it anyway. And leadership also had a sense of urgency and a desire to take advantage of good economic cycles. Some may call it making hay while the sun shines.
Boca had a vision too. Consider Mizner Park for example. They were challenged, but they persevered and got it done.
Pittsburgh saw its steel mills close but had a vision to reinvent their economy around medicine, education and robotics. Their sense of urgency in doing so was important because without a wholesale reinvention, the Burgh would have sunk into the ooze.
Last week, I got a call, (I won’t say from who) other than he was a property owner who is concerned that Delray has lost its vision and sense of urgency. The guy is not a household name per se in Delray, but he’s owned some strategic pieces over the years. His identity is really not important.
It’s not the first call of this nature that I have received. Mostly, the calls are laments that complacency has set in, political divisiveness too and that the economic cycle may be closer to the end than the beginning and that we didn’t make hay, in fact we chased the hay away.
Yeah, I know development is controversial. And for good reason a lot of times. Some of it, maybe even most of it, can be generic, lacking in imagination, poorly designed and more of the same old, same old.
But that can be fixed. Architects, developers and designers can be and should be challenged to do better.
It’s possible to make places people friendly and to design spaces that complement or improve their surroundings.
Some cities have created design studios to help ensure that projects are the very best they can be.
When famed new urbanist architect Andres Duany came to Delray for a town hall lecture, one of the first things he said was that cities should never make developers and architects guess—they should engage with projects early in the process and shape them so that they enhance the built environment.
Legendary former Charleston Mayor Joe Riley felt that mayors were the primary architects for their cities and had a responsibility to make sure that each project was as good as they could possibly be. Now, truth be told, there are limits. After all, most mayors, including Riley, are not architects or designers, but if they take the time they can learn enough to help make projects look and feel good.
FAU’s Abacoa campus used to have what they called a Florida Public Officials Design Institute, which sadly became a victim of budget cuts. It was a great program; it helped me a lot on the original vision for the Congress Avenue corridor and ideas for the four corners of Military Trail and Atlantic Avenue.
Nationally, there is a Mayor’s Institute for Civic Design which has a stellar reputation.
But there are limits too, I admit. There are property rights and if a developer, with his or her own risk capital wants to build a certain building they have a right to do so—as long as they follow the rules.
Still, most developers I have met are open to being challenged and open to design ideas, if as Duany notes, you engage them early– before they spend big bucks on plans they will be reluctant to toss in the trash.
Mix is important too. I agree with the lament about endless condos, even though I am a firm believer in the need for– and wisdom of –downtown housing if we are to have safe and sustainable urban cores.
But charmless boxes are just that—city codes should encourage good design, varied styles and features that please the public.
But talking about design is a very different conversation than the ones we typically have, which is usually about chasing development away or pretending that we can prevent change. We shouldn’t do the former and we can’t do the latter, even if we wanted to.
We should be talking about design and the very real challenge of how to allow cities to evolve without losing their essence, uniqueness and charm. We should also be talking about mix—how can we encourage cool uses and what’s missing in our community—i.e. workforce housing, co-working, boutique theaters, studio space etc?
That would require vision.
In order to achieve the vision, you need courage.
And in order to drive change, you need a sense of urgency.
If nobody’s waking up every day with a burning passion to make a difference, it tends not to happen. And those communities, businesses and organizations that do have a burning desire will clean your clock before you even know what happened to you.

Do You Believe in Magic?

Friendship has been on my mind lately.
Maybe it was a visit from a childhood friend or watching my stepson light up when he came home from college and reconnected with his best buddy—but the older I get the more I find myself treasuring the friends I have made over the years. I am so grateful for friends; the people you can count on year after year for fun, laughs, good conversation, advice and just plain hanging out. The best ones are there for you when you are up and when you’re down. They are real, sincere and sometimes painfully honest.
They give you the benefit of the doubt when you mess up—as we all do from time to time –and they are happy when you succeed; sad when you suffer a setback. As I approach yet another birthday I have been reflecting on the magical times in my life and they all revolve around family and friends. That’s not a profound discovery, but I also realize that I have had several very special eras of friendships and a few professional experiences that can only be described as magic (sorry, there’s no other word). And in talking to people I have come to understand that not everybody gets to have that in their life, either personally or professionally. So I feel a whole lot of gratitude for the magic and that’s what I will always look for in my work and relationships.
I’ve been blessed with several friends that I have had since early childhood. I have a core of guys who I have known since I was 6, 7 and 8 years old and I am very aware of how special and how rare that is.
We’ve kept it going through junior high cliques and high school crushes, college, first real jobs, marriages, kids and now middle age. We are spread throughout the country—California, Wisconsin, North Carolina, Virginia, Arizona, New Jersey and our native New York. We don’t see each other much, but we are in touch. And when we do get together for reunions or milestones we pick up where we left off.
Truth be told, the talk of glory days gone by is rare. We typically talk about our present day lives and our plans for the future, which shockingly now includes talk of retirement and yes mortality (in another 50 years or so).
To be able to share those conversations with guys who knew your 4th grade teacher, met your grandparents, went to your bar mitzvah and know who you took to the prom is nothing short of remarkable. Past embarrassments become the source of warm memories, like the time you pretended your car broke down just so you could linger at the local fast food joint and talk to the cute girl from your social studies class or the time when a friend painted a rock with the phrase “the search is over” (a cheesy 80s song by Survivor) only to have the object of this sure thing say she never wanted to see him again when she drove by and saw it.
We have gone through cancer—(parents and one of us), experienced marriage and divorce, parenthood and grandparenthood, business ups and downs, births and deaths— together. We have also experienced a whole lot on our own. We have close friends that the others don’t know, experiences that we didn’t share and a whole life separate from each other. But we know that if something ever happened to any of us, we could reach out and find whatever help we needed within our circle. No questions asked. These are the brothers I never had.
I live in Delray Beach because of my friend Scott, who is one of the guys I’ve known for over 40 years. So blame him if you must. After we graduated high school, Scott went off to SUNY Oswego and I spent a year at Stony Brook University before joining him in a place that was so cold, snowy and windy that we didn’t thaw out until four years after graduation. So the prospects of warm weather made it an easy decision for me to seek a newspaper job in either Florida or California, where another guy from our circle was going to chiropractic school. The Florida offer came first and off I went to join Scott who was already here sitting by the pool.
Florida in the late 80s was an interesting place. I thought it was summer camp. Every morning we went for bagels with Scott’s dad Mickey and after work we played tennis, went to the pool and explored the area.
I was assigned to cover Delray and it was like discovering journalistic heaven: political bickering, horrific crime, City Hall intrigue and interesting people everywhere you turned. This place put the fun in dysfunction. But despite the myriad of serious problems there was a vision in place and a whole lot of aspiration and talent aligned to turn the city around. And I got to write about it and eventually participate.
The newspaper office was in Boca on East Rogers Circle and the newsroom was filled with off the charts characters and a lot of gifted writers, editors and photographers. It was a golden age of community newspapers and we were growing by leaps and bounds—the Monday-Thursday Papers was a great place for me to learn from older and much more experienced journalists who spent a lot of time showing me the ropes and teaching me how to spot news and dig deep for the telling detail that made a story resonate.
It was a magical time and again friendship drove a lot of the creativity, fun and success of the venture. We enjoyed each other, hung out together at Dirty Moe’s, went to lunch at Spinnakers, Tom Sawyer’s, Boston’s, Ken and Hazel’s and George’s Diner. We pushed each other to succeed and laughed along the way. I couldn’t wait to go to work in those days.
Over time, the era came to an end. People move on, to other jobs, me included. The industry changed, technology changed, the characters that made newsrooms so amazing faded away. And I miss them. I think the world misses them.
I next experienced magic– driven by friendship and relationships– during my 7 years as an elected official in Delray Beach. In hindsight, it was a special era. The great initiatives and visions that I covered as a reporter were largely completed by 2000 and so the group I served with and the staff I worked alongside were given the gift of a blank slate.
When that happens, you have two options. Build on what came before and put your own stamp on things or go in another direction. We chose to build on. And we did.
We engaged people in a Downtown Master Plan, we did a plan for parks, we did a cultural plan, we focused on neighborhoods, we delved into race relations, worked to engage citizens, addressed recruitment and attrition issues in police and fire, adopted a southwest neighborhood plan, revamped our historic preservation policies and invested in assets like Old School Square and the library which moved to West Atlantic which became a major focus. We moved the high school and focused on schools. But we did more than just plan and dream. We got things done. And we did it as a team.
We celebrated our successes and we came together during the hard times too—hurricanes, the death of Jerrod Miller and the myriad controversies that occur in a place that people are passionate about.
Along the way, you make friends—and a few enemies– but you realize in hindsight that it is all about relationships and the ability to touch people; to make their lives better if you can.
I served with commissioners, citizens and city staff who talked about the need to listen, work together and take responsibility for trying to make a positive difference on whatever challenges we faced. They believed in building a great city and we were willing to try new approaches in order to make things happen. We were bold and ambitious and took some risks. Some stuff worked, some things fell short. But we learned together and it was a whole lot of fun.
I served with a Commissioner named Alberta McCarthy and she talked about community unity and we adopted the slogan. As we see divisions in our nation get wider by the day during a particularly brutal election season; as we witness bickering at city commission meetings and negativity on social media, I think about that phrase. Maybe some think it’s trite and corny. But it isn’t. It’s a big thought, an ideal, something to strive for. It may or may not be achievable. But it’s everything, isn’t it? It’s about coming together to build a better future for as many people possible; hopefully everybody.
We never achieved it totally, but I think we came close enough to see what it looked like.
Magic occurs when caring people commit to each other; whether it’s a childhood friendship that never ends; a successful business or a city that wants to make something happen.
You can have all the raw material—money, strategy, resources galore but you need the people part. That’s a must.
It’s all about the relationships…there is no short cut around people and you can’t achieve great things in isolation. You need friends. It’s just that simple.

No Way to Run a Railroad

I learned a new word this weekend: kakistocracy.
It’s a Greek word and I saw it in Peggy Noonan’s weekly Wall Street Journal column which covered this very strange election season we are stuck (trapped?) in.
The word means government by the worst persons, the least qualified and or the most unprincipled.
Noonan concluded that we are on our way there. I would take it one step further. I think we are there.
Now that doesn’t mean there aren’t standouts in office at every level of government or bright stars on the horizon but let’s face it Congress stinks and many state and local elected officials are lacking.
Inevitably elected officials are judged on results but style counts too.

Maya Angelou may have said it best: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

Yes indeed.
It’s hard to get results with a bad style and if your all hat and no cowboy (style but no results) you’ll also fall short.
But one thing is certain, public service is a job to do, not to have. And too few people are willing to take votes that they know to be right because they fear losing their next election. The best elected officials have to be willing to lose if it means doing the right thing. You have to be willing to put it on the line.

The job of an elected official is not an easy one. I’ve only got direct experience on the local level, but I’ve observed state and federal officials and I can comfortably say the jobs are complex.
On the local level, you have to understand municipal finance and taxation, you need to be cognizant of public safety, urban planning, architecture, mobility, labor unions, economic development, ethics, education, social issues, health issues, race relations, the importance of culture and the nuances of your local economy to name but a few. Hopefully, you’ll also value the importance of citizen engagement, the need to attract talent, encourage economic growth and how to position your city in the regional, state and yes national and even international conversation.
On the state and national levels, the list goes on.
So if you are going to do the job, you have to be willing to work hard, do your homework and show up because there are endless demands on your time.
But perhaps the most important skill is leadership.

Why? Because your success of failure will ultimately depend on your ability to lead, your emotional intelligence, your ability to communicate and connect and how you handle the stuff that’s inevitably going to be thrown at you that you don’t expect.
Success depends on your soft skills, how you navigate the nuances and most perhaps importantly how you are able to communicate and connect with the communities or constituencies you serve.
And the operative word here is serve. You are elected to serve the people, not to indulge your personal preferences or to have others serve you. Sounds simple, but take some time to study how issues are handled and you’ll often find a deficit of leadership. And if issues remain unresolved a lot of times it’s because elected officials are unwilling or unable to compromise, unwilling to listen or cling to their personal preferences at the expense of the community.
We wouldn’t be talking about kakistocracy if we were attracting stellar leaders to politics.
When was the last time you couldn’t choose in a political race because there were too many good choices?
Wouldn’t it be nice if elections were like visiting your favorite restaurant where there were so many good options you couldn’t go wrong?
Can’t hurt to dream…

But at some point in time, hopefully sooner rather than later, we’ll fix what prevents our most capable leaders from running for office. Until then, we will have to content ourselves with too often having to choose between the lesser of two evils. And our Democracy, our communities and our country is too important for that to continue.

Leadership Instills Belief

I read a fascinating story in Sunday’s New York Times.
It was the story of a man in a poor Brazilian favela who converted an old decrepit building into a badminton training center that is producing champions.
His son will compete in the Olympics only a few years after picking up a racquet and dozens of other children are training and winning in the midst of poverty, crime and despair.
It was an uplifting story of what my old commission colleague Jon Levinson used to call “a monomaniac on a mission.”
Never ever underestimate what a passionate person can achieve if they believe in their cause and won’t stop until they change the world, or their little corner of it.
And that’s why a dad in Brazil worked for years, scavenged dumps and pushed until he created a place where children could come and learn that they could achieve. It wasn’t about badminton per se, the sport was just a vehicle. The real end game is to instill belief.
That’s what leadership does. It instills belief, uplifts others and speaks relentlessly about possibilities, solutions and a better future. Leadership is empathy. An ability to see and feel what others may need in order to thrive, even if they might not see it (yet) themselves

It’s doubtful that impoverished children in Brazil were sitting around dreaming of playing badminton. But they were certainly in need of someone who cared about them and believed in their futures.
Fortunately, in Boca and Delray, we have been blessed with people who have stepped up and made a difference. Some have worked with children, some have devoted themselves to the arts and culture, others have devoted their lives to bettering a neighborhood or treating addiction.
They are leaders in the purest sense.
I’d love to share a few examples with you.
Tony Allerton and a few other good people founded the Crossroads Club 35 years ago to help those who are in recovery from an array of addictions.

For some it’s drugs. For others it may be food, gambling, alcohol or sex. Tony, a Korean War veteran and all around good guy, has been the heart and soul of the place from the beginning. And he and others at Crossroads do an amazing job. They serve over 900 people a day, an astonishing figure and a blessing to those in need of community, love, understanding and truth.
Tony is something else. Inspiring, positive, warm and caring.

These are the types of people I think Pope Francis referred to during World Youth Day yesterday when he urged people not to succumb to complaining and negativity but instead find ways to care for and help others.

The Pope called negativity a “virus infecting and blocking everything” and said young people must not forget about God in a world of unlimited information.
My friends at CROS Ministries are also amazing. In our community, you may know their work at The Caring Kitchen which for many years has provided food to the hungry in our community. They are remarkable community servants. They serve over 100,000 meals a year, each and every year. Just remarkable.
Fortunately, there are many more examples of the power of visionary leaders to make a difference.
For a while now, there has been a desire to create an entrepreneurial “hot zone” in Delray Beach.
There’s also been a long time desire to jumpstart Congress Avenue and to rejuvenate US 1 and south of the avenue, the Sofa district.
All of this and more is not only possible, it’s probable if the right combination of people, passion and leadership make a choice that it will happen.
If you can create badminton champions in a favela (and teach them movement based on Brazilian dance steps) anything is indeed possible.