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Leadership key in changing communities for better

By Sue Dieter

Sun Tribune

In order for small communities to build energy self-reliance, leaders are needed. So, participants in the Sixth Annual Symposium on Small Towns heard what lessons leaders might need from Peter Hutchinson.

Hutchinson is currently President of the Bush Foundation in St. Paul, a private, grantmaking foundation. He has also served as Vice President of External Affairs for the Dayton-Hudson Corporation, superintendent of schools in the Minneapolis School District and as state finance director under Governor Rudy Perpich.

The theme for this year's Symposium is, "The Power of Small: Building Solutions for Energy Self-Reliance."

Hutchinson relied on his experiences as the superintendent of schools in the Minneapolis school district to set the tone for his keynote speech. He related an experience visiting a fourth-grade classroom when a student explained what she thought the job of a leader was. She told him that she thought a leader was someone who goes out and changes things to make them better.

Hutchinson related that idea to the principals in the school district, saying "The good news is we have a job description. The bad news is that 4th graders know it."

Hutchinson then said, "The bad news for you is that your communities know you're here. So, your job when you get home is to change things to make them better."

Hutchinson then shared a few lessons he has learned to help make those changes.

First, Hutchinson talked about his job at Dayton-Hudson. On his first day back in 1975, he asked his boss, "What do I need to accomplish?"

The answer was to get Interstate 394 built. Hutchinson joked that if anyone who has been to Minneapolis lately can see how incredibly successful he was. But he said he did learn that when you have a big project, the best approach is to think no small thoughts, but take no big steps.

Hutchinson said the lesson is that you don't shrink away from the big stuff, like energy independence, but don't try to get there in one big step.

Hutchinson urged participants to "ask yourself at the end of the day, 'What did I do today that moved me closer to my goal?'"

The second lesson came from a bus ride in south Minneapolis. Hutchinson said that as superintendent, he decided to ride a school bus just to find out what it was like. As it turned out, a camera crew from one of the local television stations, along with a photographer from the Star Tribune, also went along to report on it.

Hutchinson recounted that as he was getting off the bus at Anderson School, the bus driver said, "Remember to hold on the hand rail."

Hutchinson didn't use the handrail, missed the first step and fell down the bus steps in front of all of the students and photographers.

"The lesson here is to listen to those around you, they will keep you from falling on your face."

A family vacation set the scene for the third lesson Hutchinson shared. He and his family went camping with friends in Oregon one summer. In the middle of the night, Hutchinson's oldest daughter got ill and threw up all over the tent.

"What I learned here was that when you're in the dark, things look a lot better than they really are.

"You cannot lead from ignorance. You need to keep the lights on to see where you are going and bring people to your work."

The job as superintendent provided another lesson that Hutchinson shared. He had asked his assistant for a copy of the district's curriculum. When the answer was, "I'll see if we have one," Hutchinson assumed the assistant was looking for a copy of the curriculum. As it turned out, there was no curriculum.

Hutchinson thought it would be a good idea to get one, so he started asking how to do that.

"I was told I needed to form a task force. When I asked how many people should be on it, the answer was about 140. And when I asked how long this would take, I was told about five years."

So Hutchinson said that he needed something a little sooner, and was told he was being unreasonable.

Hutchinson did end up forming a task force of 36 people. He told them that he thought other districts have already done this, so what they needed to do was scour the schools for the best curriculum they could find, rip the cover off and put their cover on it.

"The lesson in this is, if you're going to change things, it's best to be unreasonable, because reasonable won't get you there."

Hutchinson also had a lesson to share from his time as state finance commissioner.

He said that when he accepted the job from Gov. Perpich, the state had a $145 million shortfall. The governor told him to fix it.

Hutchinson said that when he started reviewing the budget, it turned out that the shortfall was exactly the same amount as the projected pay increase for state employees.

"So I told the governor that all we need to do is delay the salary increase for one year."

Perpich then asked Hutchinson to go to a meeting of the state's union stewards to explain the brilliance of this plan and get their approval. Hutchinson agreed and said that as he was outlining the details of the plan, two men in front kept laughing.

At the end of his presentation, he asked what they found so funny and the reply was, "You don't know what you're talking about."

Hutchinson said, "I wondered how they knew, so I asked them.

"They explained that every May, we paint all of our buildings, inside and out. In fact, we paint them during the fishing opener every year. And we do that because the system is yelling at us, spend the money, spend the money."

Hutchinson said that at the end of every year, the state would take away any unspent funds, so money would get spent on things like painting, just so they wouldn't have to give the money back.

"The system was completely backwards," Hutchinson said.

"And the lesson is that when you're riding a dead horse, the best strategy is to dismount. You change, you fix, you do something else.

We're going to ride some dead horses as we move ahead, so occasionally we'll have to get off and change what we're doing."

The last lesson Hutchinson had to share again came from his tenure as Minneapolis superintendent of schools.

Hutchinson asked which were the best and worst schools in the district. When he asked why those particular schools were considered best and worst, he learned that it was based on test scores. Hutchinson then asked if it was possible to measure how much students learn and come up with a new list that showed in which schools students moved the farthest in their learning?

The schools that had been at the top and bottom of the previous list were both in the middle of the new list.

"What this did was unlock the notion that the rules were fixed or the deck was stacked" against the teachers and students in the schools at the bottom of the list.

Hutchinson's lesson to be learned is that if you want to change, you have to change the rules.

"If you want to live off the grid, you'll have to change the rules. You have to figure out which rules I can change, which rules I can ignore and which rules I can flaunt."

Hutchinson closed by telling the audience that the primary responsibility of a leader is to dream.

"Dreams are what bring us to the future and draw us together."

He then told the Symposium participants that he is thrilled to think about them going out to their communities and showing the way to energy self-sufficiency.