Dave Hengel, Executive Director of Greater Bemidji
If you can find it through the clutter and mess, behind my desk at Greater Bemidji is one of my favorite quotes from President Theodore Roosevelt.
In Paris in 1910, Roosevelt gave his “Citizenship in a Republic” speech in which he said in part:
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows, in the end, the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither knows victory nor defeat.”
The quote serves as a reminder to me that we at Greater Bemidji are all called to be in the arena. To try things and risk more than some think is practical. To take a shot at making a real difference and address both opportunities and challenges when there is no easy path forward. To be — as our core values state — civic entrepreneurs in service to the region.
The quote also is a reminder to me to always respect the private and public sector leaders in our region who work to improve our community. Respect doesn’t require that we always agree. I am not blind to the fact that some don’t agree with the initiatives we drive at Greater Bemidji. Respect comes from an acknowledgment that we all share the same value and desire — to improve the lives of those who call our region "home."
As I look back over what is now my long career, two things are clear. The first is that being in the arena is harder than it used to be. Driving change in our region, addressing the issues and challenges we face, and piloting new and innovative ideas is very difficult.
Why is that? In part, it’s because both the issues and opportunities we face today are more complex and interconnected. It takes a 360-degree vision to see clearly how the economy, health, education, inclusion/equity, and the natural environment are all connected — how pushing on one side of the balloon affects the rest of the balloon.
Interconnected issues and challenges require partnership to address them, and partnerships are becoming more difficult to create in our current environment of instinctive distrust and where organizations and leaders are always busy and can be siloed in their work.
Increasingly you can’t "go it alone" in driving change, yet building partnerships takes time and is not easy. It seems much easier to go back to the comfortable life of just "doing our jobs" and not tackle those difficult goals and initiatives, no matter how critical to our community.
The second thing that is clear is fewer community members are willing to enter the arena and push for transformative change. Let me be clear, I am not suggesting fewer people care about their communities than in the past. People do care. Community members have ideas and want to make a positive difference. Despite that, I see fewer people actively leading or participating in work to build community.
I believe at its core this is a result of fear — not of failing itself nor of the criticism that comes from failing — but from criticism that comes from stepping out in the first place. We have become so critical of our leaders — and we address it in such unhealthy ways that don’t build community but tear it apart.
I was once working with a leadership team from a different community in Minnesota. The team had an outstanding community steward who had given his time (and his money) to help move the region forward. When I wished out loud for our communities to have more leaders like him, he said, “Dave, we cannibalize our leadership, and no one wants to be next on the menu.”
I must tell you; I see this play out every day right here in our greater Bemidji region. I see good people sitting back waiting for leaders to fail and relishing the opportunity to share the failure with the community. I call it “gotcha leadership.” The focus is not on addressing the difficult challenges and opportunities of our time, but on ensuring those who dare step out to lead are brought down a notch.
Why do we do that? We spend so much energy criticizing — it’s almost become a goal in and of itself. I find it really disheartening. This isn’t just true here — it is a national trend given rise by our divisive national politics. It really has to change.
Ultimately, for our region to grow and prosper, we have to encourage positive civic engagement. We should welcome leaders who step out and look to improve our community — that have the courage to be unsatisfied with the status quo, and push ideas that seem impossible. We have to learn to disagree on ideas without questioning a person’s intent and character. Finally, we have to do the hard work of building partnerships that come from trusting relationships.
Greater Bemidji will always be in the arena. It’s in our organization’s DNA. We are passionate about building a better Bemidji and have a clear sense of how to get there. We have known some successes and some pretty epic failures. No doubt, both success and failure will be in our future as well.
We want to honor community members past and present who have had the courage to step out and lead. Thank you for your community leadership. Most of all, we’d like to challenge others to get involved.
Living in Bemidji is not a spectator sport. If you have an idea or are passionate about Bemidji’s future, jump in. If you don’t know how, reach out to us and we will show you. It takes all hands on deck to build a great community.