How do you deal with a wall of civic doubt and negativism? Through quiet confidence and a simple plan: Take on something big and visible. Succeed. Then repeat, succeed, and repeat again.

By Otis White.

Maybe the most dispiriting things a reformer faces, when she’s trying to fix a major community problem–or maybe turn around an entire city–are the twin evils of cynicism and finger pointing. And if you prefer your evils in threes, add another: apathy.

In my experience, every city has some version of these problems: big cities and small towns, places in long decline and even those on the rise. And they come from people in low places and high. I’ve known mayors who were hard-bitten cynics, chamber of commerce executives who blamed everyone else for what went wrong, and newspaper editorialists who described every new idea as the Titanic weighing anchor.

So what do you do when you’re faced with such a wall of civic doubt and negativism? I’ll get to the things you should do shortly, but let’s begin with the things you shouldn’t:

  • Don’t become part of the problem. Specifically, don’t point fingers at others, don’t blame the community for things that go wrong, and don’t give up.
  • And don’t do the opposite, which is to overpromise. Leaders who promise too much (“we can turn this around in 90 days”) end up digging the cynicism hole even deeper when they fail. If you need a slogan, try this one: “Let’s do what we can.”

And what are the things you can do? Start with attitude. You can be positive without being a Pollyanna. The secret is to be quietly confident. Jack McColl, who worked for many years in rural development in the Midwest, wrote a wise little book 20 years ago called “The Small Town Survival Guide.” In it, he described a group that he called the “coffee-break cynicism society” whose delight, he said, was in describing every civic improvement as certain failure. His advice: “Cultivate your ability to smile and say, ‘Let’s try.’ ”

But ultimately the only thing that overcomes widespread cynicism is success. Doing something. Succeeding. Then doing something else, and succeeding there too.

Which begs the question: Where do you start? I’ll give you the advice I’ve heard from two highly successful mayors. One was Bill Frederick, the three-term mayor of Orlando in the 1980s. Frederick’s advice was to pick the biggest, most visible thing that you knew with certainty you could accomplish, then bring every resource to bear on accomplishing it. It worked for Frederick, and it worked a decade later for Frank Martin, the late mayor of Columbus, Georgia, who worked mightily to change attitudes in his city. Martin used what he called his “man on the moon” strategy to complete a big civic project that had eluded one mayor after another, the building of a civic center in downtown Columbus. (Again: big, visible, doable, done.)

But here’s the key: One data point is not a trend, and a single success will not change a community’s cynicism. For that, you need repeated successes. Martin followed the civic center by building a stunning 22-mile river walk, a new set of recreational athletic fields downtown, and then, improbably enough, by staging in Columbus one of the events of the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, the women’s softball competition. (If you want the full story of what Martin did and how it laid the groundwork for Columbus’ eventual revival, you can read about it in my book, “The Great Project.”)

Most civic leaders aren’t mayors and aren’t called upon to turn around an entire city. But the same principles apply if you are trying to improve a neighborhood, change a lethargic government agency, resurrect a nonprofit, or deal with a crime problem. Be quietly confident and don’t overpromise. Focus on one big, visible project and move heaven and earth to get it done. (If it can be completed in ways that exceed expectations–on time, under budget, and with unexpected quality–all the better.) Then refocus and repeat. And then repeat again.

Keep in mind that you’ll always have rock-throwers, and some will always deny progress. But the more you accomplish, the less others will pay attention to them, and the quieter and quieter the coffee-break cynicism society will become.

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Otis White is president of Civic Strategies Inc., an Atlanta-based firm that does collaborative and strategic planning for local governments and civic organizations. He also writes frequently about civic leadership and change, in his blog at otiswhite.comand in national publications such as the New York Times.