The pinch of reality is producing a new kind of leadership

King County Executive Kurt Triplett, not worrying about getting elected, is "giving the work back" by telling hard truths. Ouch! We needed that.
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Kurt Triplett, King County Executive (for two more months)

King County Executive Kurt Triplett, not worrying about getting elected, is "giving the work back" by telling hard truths. Ouch! We needed that.

King County Executive Kurt Triplett is turning up the heat. By telling it straight, that the county cannot possibly fund all the services and programs that it has with the current tax mechanisms and funding formulas, Triplett is 'ꀜgiving the work back.'ꀝ He is giving it back to the council, to the legislature, and to the voters. Will they (and we) rise to the challenge?

Leadership guru Ron Heifetz (Leadership Without Easy Answers, Leadership on the Line) of Harvard'ꀙs Kennedy School of Government tells leaders that without heat or the 'ꀜpinch of reality'ꀝ nothing much will happen. Heifetz argues the task of leaders is to 'ꀜmanage the heat,'ꀝ ensuring that there is enough discomfort so that people will face their own most pressing and important challenges, but not so much heat that they will shut down and not do anything. 'ꀜIt'ꀙs like a pressure cooker,'ꀝ says Heifetz, 'ꀜtoo little heat, nothing cooks; too much, you blow the lid off.'ꀝ

Is Kurt Triplett giving us a textbook study in 'ꀜturning up the heat?'ꀝ In recent weeks, Triplett has been talking about the various programs and services provided by the county that are beyond its required legal mandate. Case in point: animal control services. The county got into the animal control business back in 1972. Triplett says it's time to get out. Cities will have to shoulder animal control themselves or contract it out to not-for-profits.

This week Triplett issued his proposed budget for 2010. It would, among other things, 'ꀜmothball'ꀝ 39 parks, cut 367 country positions (many currently unfilled), increase bus fares, continue this year'ꀙs program of county worker furloughs, and reduce human services in as yet unspecified ways. The sparring quickly began. Triplett said his budget shielded mandated police and public safety, but King County Sheriff Sue Rahr begs to disagree. Rahr argues that the proposed budget fails to shield public safety from significant cuts and will put county citizens at risk by cutting police personnel.

From the 'ꀜturn up the heat'ꀝ perspective Rohr'ꀙs protest may be all to the good. Triplett'ꀙs idea seems to be to prompt the citizens of the county, as well as the state legislature, to confront the inadequate funding basis of counties throughout the state. 'ꀜThere'ꀙs nothing left to spare,'ꀝ said Triplett. 'ꀜCounties have to be funded differently.'ꀝ Instead of telling people he'ꀙs got it under control or that he has a magic, pain-free fix, Triplett is saying, 'ꀜWe have a problem. Are we going to face it?'ꀝ Kind of refreshing.

For some time now, voters have been happy to ask for additional services and then put lids on property taxes, the principal funding base for the counties. Now the chickens are coming home to roost. Rather than protecting people from this reality, Triplett is taking a page from Heifetz'ꀙs leadership play book and 'ꀜletting people feel the pinch of reality.'ꀝ

Two people who are happy that Triplett is turning up the heat (rather than their doing it) are the two people running for King County Executive, Dow Constantine and Susan Hutchison. It is great when your predecessor makes some of the tough calls and pulls the plug on programs — so you don'ꀙt have to. However, if Triplett'ꀙs larger agenda succeeds and people do face up to the question of how countries and in particular King County is funded, it will be either Constantine or Hutchison who will have to carry that ball forward and keep the heat on. Do either of them have the stomach for that?

They'ꀙd better, as the 2009 general-fund deficit of $93 million is projected to be another $54 million in 2011 and then $88 million in 2012, provided there is no change in funding and no new sources of revenue.

Do we have to have people who are in Kurt Triplett'ꀙs odd interim position (no legacy to defend as was the case for longtime Country Exec Ron Sims) or no election to win (Constantine and Hutchinson) who have the courage to tell us these hard truths? While Mayor Greg Nickels isn'ꀙt quite the same species of lame duck as Triplett, he surely is a type of that ornithological type. Might we hope that Nickels will take advantage of his waning days to do some Triplett-style turning up the heat?


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About the Authors & Contributors

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Anthony B. Robinson

Anthony B. Robinson was the Senior Minister of Plymouth Church in downtown Seattle from 1990 to 2004. He was also a member of the Plymouth Housing Group Board. After living for many years in southeast Seattle, he moved recently to Ballard.