As an elected leader, your journey consists of peaks and valleys and a decent amount of challenges that will test you and may cause you to question your priorities, relationships, actions, mindset, and beliefs. The following tips will help you stay focused and lead with equity as an elected leader.
1. Know your values. Your values are your true North Stars that guide all your life decisions, big and small. Naming your values will help you answer the question: What will I never compromise? Start by selecting 8-10 top values from this list, then synthesize that list into 3 top values. These should be values you know you will never be able to compromise.
To go deeper in this exercise, find a trusted partner and set aside 1-3 hours to complete the Strategic Mapping Process together. It will serve as an invaluable foundation to guide your journey of elected leadership.
2. Relationships come first. To be a truly effective political leader, you must have a keen sense of the dynamics of your elected body. At the beginning of your term, be sure to prioritize the following relationships:
- Your governing body’s Legal Counsel, who can explain process-related questions and help guide you through the steps to change policies in your jurisdiction.
- Your Ethics Administrator (if applicable), who can tell you how to remain in compliance with gifts and ethics rules.
- The leadership of your governing body and/or Committees, who can often influence how or when to bring your ideas or policy changes up for a vote.
Focus on building relationships and feeling out dynamics on your elected body before introducing policy proposals. It will be worth the time you put in upfront to develop and foster relationships with your colleagues and build partnerships to advance your policies.
3. Lead by listening. Voters elected you to represent their interests and priorities. It is essential that you engage with members of your community to ask them about their experiences and listen to their concerns. This will ensure your actions in office align with their needs and that you build meaningful relationships with them, instead of transactional ones.
To engage constituents in a two-way dialogue, start with a Listening Tour. This is a chance to collect as many perspectives and points of view as possible. The Community Engagement FAQs for Elected Leaders offers guidance from start to finish.
4. Prioritize issues. It’s tempting to react to every problem as it arises, or say yes to every constituent request, but spreading yourself too thin will make you less impactful.
Go deep, rather than broad. By focusing on 1-2 key priorities, you will become known as the go-to person on those few issues and will achieve greater impact on those issues. Take a bit of time – 1-3 months – before choosing the policy issues that you will take on in your first year in office.
Prioritizing effectively also requires you to consider what issues you will not take on right now. What ideas can you delegate to someone else or let go of for the moment?
5. Communicate regularly. It’s important to establish a two-way communication system to share out your plans and successes along with providing regular opportunities for constituent feedback. Social media is the most cost- and time-efficient way to communicate as an elected leader. Here are a few best practices:
- Consistent posts are key. Post at least once per day. You can schedule posts in advance to save yourself time.
- Let followers see behind the scenes. Personalize your posts so followers get to know your personality. Ask yourself, “Is this something my audience might be interested in?” instead of “Is this a message I need to get out?”
- Keep learning. Social media changes fast. Follow leaders in the space and get ideas from other people or campaigns that are doing social media well.
- Create/refine your social media strategy. Check out these social media best practices (grouped by digital platforms) and these 10 best practices to ensure you're getting the most out of your social media strategy.
6. Understand processes. Newly elected leaders often receive a handbook or training on the governing process. Learn the basic process to change a policy in your jurisdiction, including:
- How to introduce a bill or resolution
- How to develop and pass a budget and the steps required to pass it
- Which policy changes require you to follow a formal process
While it’s important that you understand current processes, it’s also worth noting that some processes may have been established to silence or prevent certain equity actions. These processes may, in fact, be more limiting than what you are statutorily allowed to do. Learn and understand the current processes so you can determine how to strategically navigate around them, if you’re legally able to, to accomplish your equity-focused goals.
7. Don’t reinvent the wheel. Remember, you’re not alone and it’s possible – and important – to learn from other equity-focused leaders. Once you know your priorities and the context relevant to your community, access the LEE network of elected leaders on Facebook. Ask for ideas and examples from others who have experience with your priorities. Check LEE’s Member Resource Library for tools, templates, and model language that you can modify to fit your jurisdiction. Bookmark toolkits you come across through your research, including the U.S. Department of Education’s Best Practices Clearinghouse; Publications and Resources from Georgetown’s Edunomics Lab; and Key Issues from the Education Commission of the States.
8. Cultivate your network. As an elected leader, you hold a lot of power. Start asking for those meetings you would have sought out as an advocate. Now you have leverage and other leaders will say “yes” to your meeting requests. Set up time with the following leaders and key players:
- Constituents who are most impacted by your role, including school visits if you are a school board member.
- Elected leaders in your city or state whose decisions impact your role. For example, school board members should meet with your Governor’s Education Advisor and the Chairs of the Education Committee in your state’s House and Senate before Appropriations season, to gain understanding for budgeting.
- Reach out to political and/or education reporters from your local paper to begin building media relationships. Find these reporters by reading the Politics or Education sections and reaching out to the articles’ authors.
- Develop and grow your list of community organizers, nonprofit leaders, advocates for aligned issues, and other community leaders. Meet them, keep notes, and add them to your communications lists for follow-up.
- Get to know other elected leaders in the LEE national network! These leaders will be values-aligned, approachable, and able to talk free from Sunshine Law constraints. Growing your LEE elected network will help you feel less alone, so take advantage of any opportunity to meet them, virtually or in-person.
9. Remember, it is politics. Regardless of the size or dynamics of your jurisdiction, always pause and consider the political implications of your decisions and communications. This includes building, rather than assuming, trust and confidentiality in all your interactions; picking your battles so as not to waste political capital on issues that are not your priorities; being strategic about your communications especially involving politically-charged issues; and avoiding making promises that might be difficult to keep. As an equity-focused elected leader, it's important to remain strategic in order to keep your seat and your relationships intact, so you can continue to serve your community and advocate for their needs. If something feels like it might jeopardize that role, then proceed with caution and trust your gut (and your closest advisors or brain trust).
10. Know your destination. Know where you want to go before you begin developing your strategy for getting there. What goals are you trying to achieve in office, based on listening to your community and remaining rooted in your values? Having a clear vision of your destination will ensure you succeed in getting there.
- Who is a trusted partner, or member of your brain trust, with whom you can work on your strategic mapping plan? How do you want them to hold you accountable to it?
- Who are the top 3-5 individuals with whom you want to focus on building relationships with during the first few months or year of your term?
- What are the top 1-2 issues you will prioritize at the start of your term?