When county, city and town clerks gather for continuing education institutes, it may be surprising to see them with a copy of the latest biography of Madame Curie or the Pilgrim-Poet Anne Bradstreet or even the tales of mountain climbing tucked under their arm. These clerks are not on their way to a pools-side lounge chair but rather, they are on their way to an Athenian Dialogue, an innovative approach to leadership based on the teaching method of the Greek philosopher Socrates. During their six-hour session, the discussion will look less like a book club and more like a management seminar as they deconstruct a text and tease out valuable lessons.
The role of clerks in the administration of government units is one of the oldest administrative jobs and dates back to Biblical times. Often misunderstood and confused with the employees of retail stores, clerks have managed the records and administration of governmental bodies for centuries acting as the liaison between citizens and their governments. To effectively serve the community, their position requires a broad range of knowledge in perpetual need of continuing education and a constant honing of leadership skills. Thus, they are required to attend continuing education institutes and to acquire various certifications under the sanctions of the International Institute of Municipal Clerks (IIMC). Through these Athenian Dialogues, they come together to examine leadership and management skills that increase their own effectiveness.
Discussions are drawn from a hundred books assembled by the IIMC and cover a broad range of topics under the guidance of a facilitator. Many of the works include biographies which detail not only the lives of both national and international government leaders but also provide an intimate look at history. Political leadership is examined in works such as Shakespeare’s Henry V and Julius Caesar or Alan Axelrod’s Elizabeth I, CEO. The political dynamics seen in Doris Kerns’ Team of Rivals echo in their own work lives as they too need an ability to navigate sometimes treacherous terrains. Perseverance and team leadership is deconstructed in Alfred Lansing’s Endurance: Shackelton’s Incredible Voyage or Arlene Blum’s Breaking Trail: A Climbing Life. Exploring the history of this country through the biographies of the major and minor characters weaves a comprehensive view of history as well as a view of the inner personal struggles of leadership.
This is a very different approach to a book discussion than one would have in a traditional book club. The guided discussions are designed to extract applicable lessons in leadership and management. For example, in reading Obsessive Genius: The Inner World of Marie Curie, the discussion included how women mentor – or do not mentor – their colleagues as well as balancing careers and families. But it also delved into how the development of Paris in the second half of the nineteenth century attracted the creative class – in this case, a cohort of scientists – to the city. As administrators who are often involved in the economic development of their districts, this opens an unexpected discussion of what it takes to draw groups who will profit a community.
Women’s leadership techniques and the position of being a responsible manager in male-dominated, governmental environments are a popular topic since women are in the majority as clerks and must effectively work in the face of gender stereotyping. These situations present challenges, especially in areas where women are still expected to take orders rather than giving them. Through biographies like those of first ladies Eleanor Roosevelt and Nellie Taft and the life of Anne Bradstreet, the first American poet who was the daughter and wife of two colonial governors, effective female leadership is discussed.
One of the stunning outcomes of a continued commitment to these literary works by clerks is that over time they begin to weave a rich tapestry of cause-and-effect, multiple perspectives, and nurture the ability to see the larger picture. For clerks, this becomes a profound tool in critical analysis which benefits our governments and the leadership of our communities. This is a shining example of how literature becomes a powerful tool in communication, critical thinking, and team building. Thinking through the Humanities can be a transformative experience not only for clerks but for business people and educators.