On Deadline: Can 'Leadership Palo Alto' be resurrected? Not without students | October 21, 2011 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |


Palo Alto Weekly

Spectrum - October 21, 2011

On Deadline: Can 'Leadership Palo Alto' be resurrected? Not without students

by Jay Thorwaldson

Some folks in Palo Alto have talked for several years about bringing back an experiment in civic governance: a program called "Leadership Palo Alto."

But as of early this week there were zero, as in 0, applicants, despite a looming Oct. 28 application deadline — since extended to 5 p.m. Friday, Nov. 4, to allow for more intensive outreach.

The program is open to just about anyone, with a big catch: Tuition is $1,200 for the 10-session course. Otherwise, anyone who lives or works in Palo Alto or is affiliated with a Palo Alto-based organization is welcome. Driving through Palo Alto to get to work doesn't qualify, but perhaps. ...

When it was created in 1987-1988 (under the initiative of longtime Palo Alto architect John Northway), the idea was to equip future potential local leaders — and perhaps some already in leadership roles — with basic knowledge about Palo Alto and a better understanding of how governance works, especially how individuals can help shape their community's future. History, theory and practice, in other words.

I served for several years on an advisory panel for the fledgling program, expressing my personal conviction that knowing local history is essential for making good future decisions — along lines of the old saw about reliving the past if you don't know it.

Northway, then chair of the Chamber of Commerce board, isn't directly involved in the current effort to recreate the program after a hiatus of eight years. He overcame early skepticism that the program was an "establishment" tool of business and developers by involving a broad range of individuals, and that concern dissipated.

Midtown neighborhood leader Annette Glanckopf is one of the central supporters of resurrecting the program, along with a small committee of past and present Chamber board members and others.

The new effort is spearheaded by Paula Sandas, who recently stepped down as president and CEO of the Chamber. (Details of the effort were outlined in an Oct. 14 Palo Alto Online story: www.paloaltoonline.com/news/show_story.php?id=22856.)

"We want our students to understand how their city operates," Sandas said, reflecting a much more local approach than the program had in its later years. When suspended in 2003 it was known as "Leadership Midpeninsula," reflecting the program's actual service area that encompassed Stanford and neighboring communities. But the expanded perspective lost definition and focus as it moved to what some termed a "politically correct" position.

Yet overall the program has to be rated a success, as hundreds of alumni will attest who are now involved in local government, neighborhood groups, community nonprofit organizations or simply individually involved in local issues.

Hit by a general recession and internal budget problems of the Chamber, the program took a back seat to economic concerns. There were also concerns that students, rather than getting a solid grounding in local history, trends and practical processes, were essentially designing their own program, almost individual-study in some cases, according to participants.

The tuition also had climbed from $750 per person to about double that, which put it into a "higher approval needed" for many corporate or organizational budgets.

Today's tuition is bare-bones, below what the actual cost was in the early years of the program. Sandas says organizers are seeking sponsors to help balance the budget. Some individual donations from people who believe in the importance of "building community" also would help.

The resurrection effort has its own history. It surfaced circa 2008 when the City Council designated promoting "collaboration for the common good" as a top priority. The staff brought up recreating Leadership Palo Alto as one way to promote that concept, which its primary champion, retired academic Ray Bacchetti, acknowledges is a bit esoteric. Just defining "common good" turned out to be a significant stumbling block to implementing a program that could be measured.

So now we're at a new beginning, so to speak — maybe. A major informational effort, or "sales pitch," has yet to be made to reach potential students, and there are no funds to defray the tuition this year. So unless some "give back to the community" funds come from individuals — perhaps to create scholarships or "endowed chairs" in the program — getting a couple of dozen folks to come up with $1,200 for a largely unknown program will be a tough leadership challenge.

But the benefits of such a program, properly designed and implemented, are unquestionable. Some of the biggest flaps in recent city governance stemmed from ignorance of the past, such as the huge community battles of the 1960s and early 1970s over growth, traffic, preserving a livable environment, the foothills, the baylands and social programs.

Palo Alto also has deep social traditions in which well-to-do persons (mostly of prior generations) gave both funding and personal time in terms of service on the school board, city boards and commissions and nonprofit boards. Many persons fear these commitments are being eroded or lost with the younger "entrepreneurial generation" that is preoccupied with building gizmos and companies rather than "community," or even with demographic changes.

One thing Northway feels strongly about is that there is a poor understanding in America about how to achieve successful outcomes. We tend to be expert at "jumping to solutions" that sound great and simple. But we also tend to get really bored with "defining the problem" we're trying to solve. This notion has long been recognized by those who study governance and leadership, but any political campaign — whether for City Council or president of the United States — quickly jumps to "solutions."

The late Professor Eugene Webb of the Stanford Business School explored this phenomenon, noting that the "Japanese management" approach at its peak spent an enormous amount of time doing basic research on the "problem" of how people live and what they want before trying to define solutions, such as building quality vehicles.

While that seems to have reversed in some areas, the "solutions first" approach still plagues much of our community-leadership dialogue — and perhaps a renewed, rejuvenated "Leadership" program will help balance things out a bit.

Former Weekly Editor Jay Thorwaldson can be emailed at jthorwaldson@paweekly.com and/or jaythor@well.com.


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