Leading Change Toward Sustainability

Learning from One Leader's Successes and Failures

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Michael Mucha is chief executive of the Madison, Wis. Metropolitan Sewerage District and an instructor at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash., where he teaches Sustainable Leadership and Decision Making.

Posted: Wednesday, October 17, 2012 2:30 pm | Updated: 11:30 am, Thu May 15, 2014.

You'd think Michael Mucha would be crowing a little more about the progress his wastewater district is making toward energy independence, but that success has come only after learning a lot of lessons the hard way.

Leading in sustainability, he says, requires more than just a vision and a plan. The hard work is in developing trust, relationships, and collaboration among friends - friends that might include people who don't share your vision and don't like your plan.

Mucha, chief executive of the Madison (Wis.) Metropolitan Sewerage District, brought his experience to a workshop for public officials and others at the fifth annual Growing Sustainable Communities Conference - Midwestern Region Oct. 2 in Dubuque, Iowa. The public works professional, who is also a faculty member at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash., teaches a course on Sustainable Leadership and Decision Making, which is being offered by Sustainable City Network as a webinar series in January and February 2013.

Mucha began his presentation with a question that might seem rhetorical but he says must be addressed: Why sustainability? His definition is simple: imagining a world where our children and their children are better off than we are today.

“We don’t need to make enormous changes, just small steps. If you lead in a way that creates vision, includes practical tools, accountability, and makes it easy for people, sustainable practices are possible,” he said.

When Mucha started his job with the Madison MSD in January 2011, he expressed interest in making the treatment facility energy neutral within five years. This goal would be accomplished partly by harvesting the plant's methane gas, a by-product of sewage treatment, to generate as much energy as the district required.

While colleagues were concerned that Mucha’s goal was unreachable, and could result in a broken promise and damaged credibility, Mucha persisted and in fact his team is now well on its way toward energy independence.

He contrasted that success story with another project that had a much different outcome. In the mid-1990s, Mucha was employed by the public works department in Reading, Penn. “It was a wonderful city, with great arts and diversity, but it had a garbage problem,” he said.

He described the privatized collection system composed of 16 different trash haulers that had customers throughout the city. He detailed the inefficiencies, the garbage in the streets, liquid from decomposing waste dripping off the back of trucks, and the unsettling presence of rats. Mucha decided the time had come for a city-wide program so haulers could bid on zones, along with other features of an efficient and modern system.

One step in the process was to get public input. To Mucha’s surprise at the time, “people battled.” He saw lines drawn along how citizens felt about their government. “The anti-government folks said ‘vote no’ and the trash plan went down in flames,” he said.

There were several outcomes. The city’s mayor got voted out of office and was replaced by the trash hauler who ran against him. Mucha, too, lost his job. He learned that citizens didn’t trust the city but they did trust their trash haulers. “They voted against economic self-interest because they had personal connections to their trash haulers. Lesson: it takes time to build trust,” he said.

Trust is threatened when resources shrink. “We have a higher population, but resources, water quality, air quality, fertile farmland, confidence in institutions are all going down. So the government responds by cranking up regulations, which lowers trust,” he said. He described the relationship between individuals and governments as one of scarcity, which causes fighting and competition over resources.

“The closing margin for action is not sustainable. If you know this is happening but continue to manage that way, that is the definition of incompetent,” Mucha said.

“Humans are really good at efficiency, we are hardwired to be that way,” he said. How we get things done is more important than the thing that is getting done.

Mucha said that, as an engineer, he is always looking for a formula, and thanks to the Harvard Business School he has learned a formula for trust. “Trust is not a feeling,” he said. “Trust is a function of motive, competence, reliability and respect.” He said it was a “brutal truth” that people do things for their own reasons, “not for yours.”

Mucha told a story of another time he approached a problem in a less-than-successful way because he didn't see all sides of an issue. Numerous individuals camp in their cars in the downtown area of Madison, blocking parking for businesses, littering, and not feeding parking meters. Mucha said, as a public works official, his solution was to ban car camping. But, one city council member asked what would happen to displaced people once the ban went into effect.

“I hadn’t thought past the public works piece, hadn’t seen the social justice issue, as the one council member had,” he said.

Leading in sustainability requires clarity of purpose, Mucha said, introducing the concept of backcasting. “If we forecast based on past performance, bring back those past performance trends, our future will be just like our past. Backcasting means envisioning what you want and going for it.” He said public works directors are often “doers who don’t want fancy visioning stuff,” yet a vision allows great things to happen.

One example of this concept occurred during his time working in Olympia, Wash. A 1999 earthquake damaged a major bridge over Puget Sound. The public saw an opportunity to replace the two-lane bridge with a four-lane bridge, which could move more traffic. The city opted instead to build a three-lane bridge.

“They’d envisioned a future with fewer cars, envisioned a future to reflect what they wanted, not just letting current circumstances drive decisions.” The city put the money they’d saved into a bike lane and bulb-outs where people could gather along the bridge to view artwork and socialize. Mucha said there was a lot of resistance, but now people are using the bridge for wedding receptions and other events.

Visioning has also worked well for the Waste Management department in Madison. The city had a mission statement for waste management that was long, bureaucratic, and difficult to understand. Mucha said the garbage collectors convened on a Saturday to create a new statement.

After six hours, they came up with: “Lead and inspire our community to a waste-free future.” And, they changed the department's name to Waste Resources.

“They wanted to work their way out of a job,” Mucha said. With this change of vision, the collectors were empowered to tell people along their routes about recycling options and other methods of achieving the future they envisioned.

Mucha invited the audience to consider their own hopes for the future, something to which they’d be willing to commit themselves, something “lofty” that they could influence, and to sketch that idea out in one sentence. One man from a chamber of commerce shared his idea of a community entrepreneurial center so existing businesses can expand easier and small businesses can get a start. Another was interested in politics in Africa, where he could build a sustainable city from the ground up, partnering with a U.S. sister city. Another wanted to “take politics out of road building in Chicago,” while another was striving to turn his county into an energy independent community.

Mucha prompted audience members to ask themselves: Are the decisions you make and projects you take on moving you away from your goal, or are they moving you toward your goal? And, he reminded the audience of the triple bottom line of sustainability: “Is it good for the people, good for the economy, and good for the environment?”

He presented a Sustainable Action Map (SAM), created by students at Evergreen University to help guide decision making around sustainability. Students developed three categories of sustainability measures: a healthy environment, a strong community, and a vital economy. For every decision, leaders need to ask themselves how the decision impacts environmental health; how it impacts the well-being of people; how it impacts relationships, effective government, social justice, and overall livability; and how it impacts the local economy and at what long- and short-term costs. A final piece of the formula, a SWOT analysis, asks leaders to identify strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats associated with the decision.

Mucha gave participants a chance to take a problem through the SAM process by breaking them into groups representing the Natural, the Individual, the Community, and the Economy. They were given details about the community of Fitchburg, Wis., which was considering a recycling center for organic waste. After answering their list of “impact” questions and completing their SWOT analyses, they were to assign a red, yellow, or green light to the project. Red meant more leadership was required before the project could continue, yellow that they’d identified risks that were manageable, and green that the project was accepted.

Group discussion became animated as participants brought in circumstances and experiences based on their own communities. A half-hour later, each group reported on the project’s status, from their particular discussion. Mucha concluded the activity by telling the group not to focus on selling the benefits of a program.

“Put your leadership attention on what is going to kill the project," he said. "Then you can solve those problems, instead of just trying to sell the benefits.”

Mucha had a few final words on accountability, a concept he said should be seen as opportunity, not punishment. “What stunts innovation is that if something doesn’t work, you’ll be held accountable.” This is a lesson he learned from the trash hauler situation in Reading. He said it is better if people are held accountable for specific actions that lead toward the goal, not accountable for the goal or vision itself.

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