Because my career involves helping leaders be more effective inside companies, I am always drawn to stories about leaders who appear to have innate abilities to persuade people to follow their vision. This led me to reach out and interview a young leader who displays classic leadership tendencies along with genuine humility about his own skills. The executives, whom I coach, with their decades of experience, can learn from the leadership skills and core philosophy of Alex Morse.
You know that you are speaking to a leader when you ask Alex Morse about the purpose of his recently successful campaign for mayor of Holyoke, Mass. He proclaims that he "wanted to tell a new story for the city" and "make people believe that Holyoke could be a better place." He did this by listening to residents, building coalitions, and energizing his campaign's diverse group of followers.
This 22-year-old, openly gay graduate of Brown University returned home from college to a city in gloom because of a persistently struggling economy, high dropout rates, unrelenting poverty, and issues with crime. For Holyoke, a city in decline for decades, there has been little hope for a turnaround. While very familiar with his hometown's challenges, Alex has no doubts whatsoever that Holyoke has a bright future ahead, and he decided to be the one to lead the city forward.
He credits this focus on a new future as the energizing force for his campaign. Facing an incumbent, Alex experienced predictable doubts related to his age and experience. Going door to door to listen to residents' concerns and promote his optimistic vision, he was able to draw people into his passion, show them his knowledge of the issues, and demonstrate the obvious and contagious pride that he has in Holyoke itself.
In fact, he wears an "I Love Holyoke" button everywhere he goes. An early adopter of Alex's campaign provided him with the button, which is almost as old as he is, early in the campaign, and he began wearing it at events. "We made this campaign about civic pride.... [E]veryone started asking for them [the buttons], and we ordered a thousand, and they went within a week." He believes that his love for Holyoke will sustain him as he moves from campaigning to governing. This is not a typical college graduate who wanted to flee home as soon as the opportunity arose. This public school graduate wanted to give back and be part of a new, glorious future.
When he was a sophomore in high school, Alex came out of the closet. "I remember when I came out that it was the greatest feeling in the world." Before that he experienced the typical issues of being gay within a straight society, feeling the pressure and isolation of that existence. He knew that "this gay thing isn't going away" and ended up speaking to his supportive parents. Early on, he showed his natural tendency to be a leader by launching a gay-straight alliance within his school and gave a "coming out" speech at a school-wide assembly to promote tolerance and safety for LGBT kids. This led Alex to form a non-profit for LGBT issues in Holyoke, which still provides an annual same-sex partner prom for kids. He also was appointed on a statewide LGBT youth commission under Governor Patrick Deval. His work on LGBT issues reflects his belief that no LGBT youth should feel like they need to come to grips with their sexuality on their own. They need help in "reframing the conversation" to an acknowledgement that "they are special."
Alex believes that being gay and the way he came out are foundational to the type of leader that he has become, including his tendency to be inclusive. Coming out got him fired up about politics. But because he was already well known as the young gay man who had these accomplishments along with several letters to the local papers on LGBT issues, his homosexuality seemed like old news when it came time to campaign. "My age was a bigger obstacle to overcome than my sexuality," he said.
Over time, he was able to largely erase the issue of his age. Showing a credible leadership that brought meaning to people, he gathered and consulted with coalitions from diverse parts of the community to build his plan for the future and energize people to vote for him. He also takes pride in the ways he showed hard work during the campaign with intense commitment. No one could doubt his drive to win, willingness to understand the issues, and ability to build momentum over a long campaign. He will also give voice to the underrepresented Spanish-speaking part of the community, about half of the population, by being the first mayor in the city's history who is bilingual.
Now, in moving from candidate to mayor, he sees his role as Chief Marketing Officer of Holyoke. This means continually promoting the city's assets in order to attract businesses, especially technology firms, and revitalize downtown through a new theater and focus on arts. "We have such a negative perception today; my number-one job is to promote the city and send a positive message to our residents every single day." The nuts and bolts of governing also need to be done. His transition team is focusing on his campaign promises of education, economic development, and public safety.
While others may have given up on Holyoke, Alex Morse believes the city has a bright future ahead. You don't need to read his button to know that he loves Holyoke. And, I suspect if you offer a more negative view, he will help you to reframe the conversation.