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Mayoral candidate Jenny Durkan on leadership: ‘While it always feels like it’s about you, it can never really be about you’

The people running for office this November have lots of policy ideas for Seattle. But how would they actually learn and lead? Nine Evergrey readers sat down with them to find out in a project we’re calling The Evergrey Leadership Lab.

Jenny Durkan was appointed U.S. Attorney under former president Barack Obama in 2009. She is the first openly gay person to serve in that office. This year she is making her first run for public office in the Seattle mayoral race against activist and urban planner Cary Moon.

We asked each candidate, “What are you still learning about being a leader?”

Our takeaways from talking with Jenny:

1. She doesn’t think numbers are always the solution, especially when it comes to looking at police brutality.

“You have to always remind yourself that behind every one of those numbers is a real person and family and having to remind yourself in that process and thinking, ‘Okay, have I moved too fast?’ and not try push past beyond the numbers to what the human reality is. I think, in any job we do, we get so data-driven that we forget data is just numbers. What really matters is what’s the impact on people’s lives… It’s important to remember that behind every number there’s a human reality and what we should be focusing on is, are we trying to create the right human reality? Are we attacking the human problem, not just the numbers problem? …  There is nothing worse than, I think, the times in my life I’ve had to sit down with people to say, ‘We’re going to disappoint you.’ One of the hard things was sitting down with the family of John T. Williams, who was killed by police and everyone knew it was a terrible shooting. To have to sit with them and explain to them why we could not hold that police officer accountable is horrible. You see that disappointment and you think, ‘How could I not have done better by this family?’ You know, your hands are strapped by law and by facts and stuff, but you always palpably feel this sense of people count on it. It matters in their life and that’s what we forget in government. It’s not just numbers, it’s not just vague policies.”

2. She’s learning not to take things too personally.

“There’s different kinds of anger. There’s deeply passionate anger because things are wrong and then there’s the anger you feel it personally because it feels like a slight toward you. I think those two things you channel differently because it’s anger where we are as a country. Right now I could not be more angry that Donald Trump is my president and what he’s doing to this country and everything I care about, but that’s an anger I feel in bones about who we are as a people and how we all pull together. The anger that feels kind of like it’s directed at you personally is, as a leader, the harder thing to channel into something positive. I think the most important thing a leader has to remember is, while it always feels like it’s about you, it can never really be about you. If you want to lead, you have to be thinking about what the people around you need, what you need in the first place, what is that principal need, what is that goal and that ideals need? Sometimes it’s the opposite of what you need.”

3. She’s challenging herself to build allies.

“One of the biggest causes of failure of any policy is that it gets bogged down and doesn’t get anywhere. There’s always the naysayers… You have to keep pushing through, but as you’re pushing through, you have to be building alliances. …The other big piece that I think people forget, particularly leaders in elected office forget is that you’re never there for you. You’re never there for your policies… As a mayor, you have to remember that, if it’s a good idea and the right idea, the people will be for it. The best way around it is to mobilize those voices.”

Here’s what The Evergrey Leadership Lab interviewers thought of the conversation:

Shana Bestock:

“I really enjoyed meeting Jenny Durkan. I got the sense of her as a very strong, thoughtful leader. I thought her answer about one of her failings, as she described, was the tendency to solve a problem without showing her work and skip directly to the solution without bringing everyone along. I empathize with that and respect it. It’s a sign of someone with great passion, intelligence and drive…

I think Jenny Durkan is someone who values numbers and data. She likes to prove things, she is an attorney, and she likes to dig for data in all its forms. And she talked about how she sometimes  can forget that there are human stories and individuals behind the data and to be aware of how those stories might actually tell a different narrative than the narrative the data is telling. I thought that was really interesting and a really valuable insight and a really complex insight. And I’d love to see more about how that might play out in her leadership work.”

Hear Shana’s comments in her own voice below:

Warren Etheredge:

“Jenny Durkan is polished. She says many of the right things in many of the right ways. Her convictions are strong, though perhaps to the detriment of her ability to compromise or create consensus? She clearly knows the system well enough to work the system; whether that’s to the advantage of all is unclear. She gives the impression that she sees politics in an old-school manner, as a zero-sum game in which there are winners and losers, rather than leaders and citizens.”

Eric Svaren:

“Jenny Durkan pursued LGBTQ rights for 15+ years, which suggests strong resilience. And, she seemed to have a deep understanding of diversity, especially vis-à-vis police reform (e.g., “driving while black”). She wished that she could have gone farther in the consent decree to focus on police bias; that was a disappointment to her. She became more emotional talking about the killing of John T. Williams, particularly meeting with the family. The conversation broke open when she was asked about anger. She said she tries to channel anger directed at her, but she didn’t reveal the felt experience of being targeted. When asked about how she’s working on her own leadership, she said that she’s working on “sharing her work” (how she comes to decisions). Though Jenny revealed more as the conversation progressed, it was hard to judge her level of self-awareness and how she will react to challenges she’ll face in such a highly visible role as mayor.”

Mellina White Cusack:

“What I really appreciated about my time with Jenny is that I got to see her as a human being. And I don’t mean that in a negative sense. Oftentimes in politics, certain candidates can begin to sound…robotic in a way, in how they express their platform because they have certain policies and ideas that they need to get across. So it becomes repetitive and dry in how they’re expressing that to the public. And I also feel that the way we digest information in our modern world doesn’t help that from happening…

I also appreciate that she shared her vulnerability with us. I mean, that is a good thing. It’s not always easy, as a leader, to be able to express when you are frustrated of when, looking back, you might have done things differently, or when you failed. But there’s no better way to grow. I think I have a better indication of what kind of leader she is and how she will approach Seattle if elected. And considering this entire opportunity I’ve had to interview the candidates, I feel much more confident in how I will vote this election.”

Hear Mellina’s comments in her own voice below:

Curious how the rest of the conversation went? Check out our whole interview with Jenny here:

Thanks to Jenny Durkan and her staff for making the time to chat with us, and to Evergrey Leadership Lab interviewers Shana Bestock, Warren Etheredge, Eric Svaren, and Mellina White Cusack.