By Bill Prichard
Cory Booker could have been you.
For a moment, while he was attending Yale Law School, the mayor of Newark, N.J., looked into the idea of starting a credit union. The idea didn’t pan out and – as Booker told a credit union audience at the THINK 13 Conference on May 1 in Chicago – other challenges lay ahead.
While earning his J.D. from Yale, he ran free legal clinics for low-income residents of New Haven, Conn., and volunteered with Big Brothers Big Sisters. He is a natural at politics, but not because he does things that other politicians do naturally. He has a substantial Twitter presence, which he has used to "crowdsource" problems in his city, to rally public support, even to call out Conan O'Brien for mocking his beloved Newark in a "Tonight" show monologue.
When Booker began his tenure as mayor, the city was overdue for a budget, and the projected deficit exceeded $100 million. He describes residents as being in a state of "sedentary agitation" – frustrated over their circumstances, but unwilling to take action.
Even when Booker wasn’t entirely sure what the ultimate solution would be, he was willing to act. Seeing that the police were overwhelmed, he rode in a patrol car to see the challenges firsthand. He helped set up youth courts and, recognizing that once kids were in the criminal justice system they were sometimes already too far gone, he helped establish a program to bring estranged fathers together with their kids' mothers to work on cooperative parenting. He raised money. And he raised Newark’s profile: "This is the greatest city in the world," he dared to say.
Booker’s leadership style involves more than a vision. When a resident Tweeted that her elderly father was having trouble getting snow shoveled out of his driveway, Booker showed up with a shovel. When his security detail spotted a house fire on Booker’s street, the mayor ran into the building and carried a woman out.
Once upon a time, Booker could have started a credit union: In effect, he could have been you. But what if you turn the tables? Could you be Cory Booker – or, more like him? What would you do for your constituents?
Booker's presentation at THINK 13 was part of a larger discussion about disrupting business as usual – shaking up old notions about leadership and service, and finding new, breakthrough approaches to doing what we do. Underlying it all was the question of action. How will we keep pace with changing consumer expectations? How will we make our story heard?
If we take a page from the mayor's book, action makes the difference. If law school doesn’t teach you everything you need to know about the legal challenges facing everyday people, start a law clinic. If the government can’t solve all the problems in your city, fuel nonprofits. Shovel driveways. Help your neighbor.
Where are these opportunities in your world? The same place they are in Booker's: everywhere. Watch. Listen. Build yourself a Twitter feed. Bring a shovel. Your constituency is out there, waiting for you to lead.
Bill Prichard is manager of public relations and corporate communications for CO-OP Financial Services, Rancho Cucamonga, Calif. Reach him at 800.782.9042, ext. 3450. Registration information (including an “Insider Rate” discount) for THINK 14 is already available.
Also read "Rudy Giuliani on Leadership."