This Mayor’s 3 Keys To Leadership: Empathy, Understanding And Action

Originally posted on Forbes.com

“If there was ever a time to make changes in America, this is that moment.— Randall Woodfin, Mayor of Birmingham, Alabama

As Birmingham, Alabama’s Mayor, Mayor Randall Woodfin is facing challenges he never could have anticipated when elected a few short years ago.

Mayor Woodfin ran on a platform dedicated to improving the lives of every Birmingham resident in all 99 neighborhoods by revitalizing blight, reducing crime, creating more green spaces, investing in youth programs, and encouraging civic participation—just to name a few.

The Mayor’s pledge, to put Birmingham’s people first, is outlined in The Woodfin Way and describes how “we make Birmingham better for the lowest quality of life resident and lowest quality of life neighborhood.”

For the first two years of his term, he diligently focused on his hometown’s known issues. Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit, closely followed by the death of George Floyd which resonated deeply with the majority-Black citizens of Birmingham. Though his primary campaign goals never wavered, it was clear that Mayor Woodfin’s role as his community’s leader would take on new meaning.

In spite of these events, Mayor Woodfin stands as an insightful yet resolute figure needed to guide his administration and his constituents into a better tomorrow.  He also believes that all leaders—from rural teachers to Fortune 500 CEOs—can play instrumental roles in moving towards a stronger, more equal society.

Leadership During the COVID Crisis

Needless to say, leading his city through the COVID pandemic wasn’t in the mayoral playbook when Mayor Woodfin was elected. The crisis forced him and his administration to make tough, and sometimes unpopular, decisions.

Despite pushback, Mayor Woodfin’s top priority was keeping his community as physically and fiscally healthy as possible even if it meant taking the heat. On May 1st, he enacted a mask mandate—far before Alabama’s governor issued a statewide mandate in July.

But the pandemic is more than just a health emergency. Mayor Woodfin wanted to do everything possible to keep the doors of local businesses open too. It’s the right thing to do on a human level and an economic one. A government is funded largely by various business taxes and licenses. A drop in tax-based revenue meant fewer funds to keep his city thriving.

“As a municipal government, we have to make every sacrifice that we can for [businesses],” says Mayor Woodfin. “There’s a mutual benefit. We’re so linked together…If we know they’re hurting, we’ll do what’s necessary to make sure they can make it through.”

As the ramifications of the pandemic became more clear, Mayor Woodfin and his team knew they’d have to proactively fight for their local economy. “As much as I want help from the state or the federal government,” says Mayor Woodfin, “we have to anticipate that it may not come or that it’ll take too long.”

Their response was the creation of the Bham Strong Fund—a private-public partnership made to help small businesses and community members stay afloat. With a mission “to build, link and coordinate people, projects and resources to strengthen Birmingham’s COVID-19 response,” Bham Strong has launched initiatives including loan programs, employing displaced workers with paid local volunteer opportunities, and genuinely listening to the pain points of business owners and taking action to resolve them.

So far, the Bham Strong program has served over 2,800 small businesses with loan and technical assistance, 300 unemployed workers with new opportunities, and 8,800 residents with various needs and services.

Of course, the crisis is still ongoing. Every day the Mayor faces new and unforeseen obstacles. Still, he remains optimistic about the future, especially if we work as one. “These are tough decisions,” says Mayor Woodfin. “But I’m more than comfortable…that without a doubt we will overcome this and be stronger. “I just wish we did it more as a collective. I wish we used the terms of ‘We’, ‘Us’, ‘Our’ versus ‘You’ and ‘I’. This is easier as a country to get over if we were collectively together.”

All Hands On Deck

Far before COVID ever emerged, Mayor Woodfin practiced leadership philosophies that would prove essential in handling this challenge. One of these philosophies is the mantra, “all hands on deck.” In essence, if we want to move the needle in a positive direction, everyone has to participate.

“Democracy only works from a participatory standpoint,” says Mayor Woodfin. He wants to see people taking a more active role in government rather than simply vote every few years and expect the politicians to do the rest. “You can’t just put [politicians] in the boat, and then expect that every issue is going to be solved. We need our residents actually participating with us. That’s what I mean by all hands on deck.”

The idea of “all hands on deck” goes beyond government participation and into every organization. As a leader, it’s important to show up and be fully present within every level of your business—not just for the C-level meetings. Mayor Woodfin says, “Our city is only as strong as our lowest quality-of-life neighborhood.” The same mentality goes for any company.

Messages like these make Mayor Woodfin a valuable leader in Birmingham, as well as someone to watch on a national level. Recently, he joined 16 other rising political stars to give a joint keynote speech at the 2020 Democratic National Convention. The theme for the night was—Leadership Matters.

Let Your Values Lead You

After getting elected, Mayor Woodfin took a cue from a common business practice by instilling five core values into his administration. He considers them all essential to his team’s success, and each can easily apply to roles outside of leadership in government.

“Our five core values are customer service, efficiency, effectiveness, transparency, and accountability,” says Mayor Woodfin. “Those five values are culture-building. It is an uphill battle because I inherited a culture where no one talked about core values in government…but I think if you want it to work, you should have some core values.”

Recently, the core value of customer service became a focal point within Mayor Woodfin’s administration, and even in the media.

As the Black Lives Matter movement gained momentum after the death of George Floyd, more people—including those within the City of Birmingham—began demanding that Confederate statues and monuments get taken down.

One such object was a 52-foot obelisk called the Confederate Sailors and Soldiers Monument located in Linn Park near Birmingham’s City Hall. As protests in the area grew, residents insisted that the monument be removed immediately, or they’d do it themselves. “This public square and this statue represented something regulating Black people to property and slavery in a city that is 73% Black,” says Mayor Woodfin. “That’s just not right. It’s offensive.”

Wanting to listen to his constituents first-hand, Mayor Woodfin went to the Linn Park protest. He was determined to do right by the people who elected him, but he also wanted it done safely.

First, he asked for a week to finish the removal, but the protesters demanded a shorter timeline. The mayor then asked for three days—still too long. Finally, Mayor Woodfin announced that the monument could be removed within 24 hours. The protestors agreed. “The core value that was touched on was customer service—understanding the pulse of what our residents wanted and getting them that.”

Mayor Woodfin and his team kept that promise, even though it meant getting death threats and potential legal action from the Alabama attorney general. One sleepless night later, the monument was peacefully taken down. It was placed in a secret, secure location, and exactly where it will end up is still undecided.

How Leaders Can Move the Dial on Equality

Though discussions about racial inequality aren’t new, it’s recently been thrust back into the spotlight. Now, more leaders are searching for ways to be proactive in creating better workplaces—and better societies—for everyone.

“It hit a nerve in America that hadn’t been touched on in quite some time,” Mayor Woodfin says. “This conversation about inequality, racism, and social justice has made its way to the boardroom and C-Suite down to the ground level of white and Black colleagues in corporate America and nonprofits. It’s everywhere.”

To better engage in these conversations, Mayor Woodfin encourages work cultures of empathy, conversation, and action. “Empathy is so important in this conversation about equality and racism in America,” says Mayor Woodfin. “We don’t know people’s history. We don’t know what their family went through or what they’re going through.”

It’s a sentiment that often applies to conversations both in and outside of the office. No one can fully understand the lives of others. We must listen and lead with empathy so they know that we genuinely care.

However, it takes more than communication alone to make a real impact. “Make the conversation move beyond just conversation,” says Mayor Woodfin. “Make it move beyond empathy…A deep dive in empathy and understanding should next move to action.”

Once you hear what you can do, go take action, and make it a reality. “We who are in power with discretion, resources, and with the ability to move things—move them. Just move them,” says Mayor Woodfin.

“If there was ever a window. If there was ever an opportunity to make changes in America, this is that moment.”

The conversation with Mayor Randall Woodfin continues on the Leading with Genuine Care podcast! Listen to his vision for a better Birmingham, how his childhood inspired his leadership, lessons he learned from Civil Rights leader John Lewis, and more here or watch it on YouTube here!

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Cindy Vuu of BitisJulianna Raye