J.D. Clark started 2013 in good company.
The 27-year-old Mayor of Chico spent five days in January discussing leadership issues with the chief counsel for NASA, Nigeria’s minister of finance, a member of Parliament from Bahrain and the national parks service superintendent, among others.
Clark was one of 50 senior executives in government, business and nonprofit organizations who attended “Leadership for the 21st Century: Chaos, Conflict and Courage” at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. Being the youngest participant, he admitted he was “out of his comfort zone” at first, but it didn’t take him long to find his footing and begin working with the others to develop and grow ideas he could bring back to Wise County.
“I knew I had to step it up and see if I could hang,” he said. “[I learned] that no matter what our accents are, we all have a lot of the same problems.”
He said many of his classmates were intrigued by his Texas drawl, but he hit it off best with the director of agriculture for the Isle of Man, which is between England and Ireland.
“Surprisingly, we had a lot in common,” Clark said. “The population of Man is close to that of Wise County… and he is also concerned about water.”
The issue of water and its future availability was something Clark wrote about as part of the application process for the school, and it was discussed in small groups as part of the class.
Clark said the exercise included eight people per group. Each had five minutes to explain his issue, and in turn, the group had 10 minutes to ask questions. The presenter then turned his back to the group while they discussed potential challenges, problems or things he might have overlooked, and while he could hear the discussion, he could not interject. That was followed up by brainstorming technical solutions.
The discussion inspired Clark to perhaps change his approach in seeking a solution to the county’s water issues.
“It’s always been ‘us against them,'” Clark said in reference to civic leadership and the oil and gas industry regarding water.
“We should be in it together, though,” he said. “(This class) was so great in terms of being more open-minded to the fact that one man isn’t going to fix it, but it will be a coalition of all these groups.
“We’re all in this boat together, but we need water under our boat.”
During the lectures, they learned about leadership management strategies and focused on the values that factor into their decision-making.
One particular exercise had Clark and the other participants rank a group of patients on a kidney transplant list as to who was most deserving of receiving a kidney.
Then each person was named an advocate for one patient. Clark said he had to give a speech to the class to convince them why his patient, who was ranked low, deserved to be at the top of the list.
In the end, Clark’s patient moved up the most.
“My guy was second to last, but by the end he was third,” he said. “Personally, it was good for me to see that I could hang in that group.”
Clark said every day he felt like he was “putting more tools in (his) tool kit.”
“I could have gone up there and sat in the back and not said anything, but that’s not my style,” he said.
Since returning home, Clark has already called on some of the skills he learned to help in goal-setting and planning within his city.
“Being up there made me realize that we’ve got the people here and we can get together and do a lot of cool stuff,” he said. “It’s a good place to live, but it can be better.”