About 18,000 of us call this lovely community tucked along the eastern shore of Mobile Bay home.
We love our traditions in Fairhope. In a few days, thousands of visitors will stroll our streets for the annual Arts and Crafts Festival. During the summer, the crowd “oooohs and aaaahs” as fireworks explode over the water and light up our famous pier. But my favorite tradition, by far, is the Lighting of the Trees that kicks off the holiday season.
Chilled citizens crowd the main intersection of Fairhope Avenue and Section Street as an orchestra plays Joy to the World. Kids clamor up on dad’s shoulders to get a better view. Tiny bubbles float down from above mimicking the snow that we never get.
Then, the moment the crowd has been waiting for, we count down in unison: “5 – 4 – 3 – 2 – 1!!!” And with a flip of a switch, the town is illuminated. But this year, the crowd gasped when the lights came on. Many trees appeared only half lit.
Kids cried. Teenagers took selfies with the captions #trippedabreaker and #paypowerbill. Adults dropped their funnel cakes in the middle of the pristine street. The orchestra trailed off like somebody was stepping on a bagpipe. The only sound was the bubbles popping in mid air.
We all expected to see the Grinch tip-toeing down De La Mare Avenue with a sack full of lights on his back.
As you would expect in a small town, the rumor mill was humming the next day. Social media buzzed with questions. People flooded Wal-Mart to stock up on bread, water, and batteries because well, we are Pavlov conditioned to do that when a storm is coming.
The storm did come, but it had nothing to do with the weather. The conspiracy theorists pointed to the tree lighting as the first public event after our new mayor took office. Coincidence? Hmmm…the conspirators suggested that someone from the old regime may have hidden the instructions for wrapping the trees with lights???
Some citizens even piggy-backed on our new President’s tag line with a “Make the Fairhope Trees Great Again” on Facebook. However, Christmas came and then New Year’s and the hoopla died down.
Small town politics struck again. In February, our new mayor terminated two city employees to make way for her new design for city operations. The Council retaliated with a hiring freeze—and the finger pointing started. Both sides accused the other of poor communication; meanwhile, the citizens were in the dark. (And not solely because of the trees.)
This happens a lot in times of transition.
One of the most difficult tasks that leaders face is to navigate a group of people through change management. Particularly when new leaders replace an incumbent with the promise of a brighter future.
During such times of transition, leaders should increase their communication—even to the point of being obvious. If they do not, their constituents will fill in the blanks in three ways.
#1. Constituents will doubt the leader’s INTENT.
One of the rumors about our beloved trees was that the city was transitioning to LED lights, but higher costs meant lower coverage. Literally.
Another rumor: Without a budget in place, spending was suspended—including lights—bah humbug!
With regard to the recently terminated employees, the mayor said she could not comment publicly on the matter, but from what I have heard, there wasn’t even a hint of unethical behavior.
Without clear communication, the phrase “from what I have heard” is actually heard a lot! We question why we haven’t heard from the leader. What are they hiding? Where is the hidden agenda? Poor communication leads constituents to assume what the leader meant. Unfortunately, we assume the worst. I’m not saying it is fair, I am just that is what happens.
#2. Constituents will doubt the leader’s INTEGRITY.
Remember Milli Vanilli? The 1980’s rock duo faked their way to the top of the Billboard charts simply because they were handsome, good dancers, and great lip synchers. Once their fraud was discovered, the careers of Milli and Vanilli went willy-nilly (sorry for being really silly!) There is a saying in Texas that rings true for the duo: All hat and no cattle.
When constituents see leaders behaving in one way while communicating another—or not communicating at all—we wonder what else you are doing that we don’t know about. (See Congress approval rating of 17%.)
Pretty words aren’t always true, and true words aren’t always pretty. Deep down, we prefer the ugly truth. Have you ever noticed how hard it is to define integrity without using the words honesty, transparency, truth? There is a reason. They are inseparable.
#3. Constituents will doubt the leader’s INTELLIGENCE.
When leaders defeat an incumbent, it is because their message swayed public perception more than their opponent did. (See Trump 2016.) We believe their solution will work. We endorse their logic with our vote.
As a new leader, if your communication doesn’t square with your campaign message, we will question your thinking … and ours for electing you. We wonder where you are going and when we can't see where that is, we wonder if you know where you are going.
Change is no fun. None of us enjoys it. Over communicating does help those involved on both sides when you are going through it.
One more thing …
Fairhope started as a community of free thinkers. We still embrace our heritage. (Translation: we are a little funky and we are ok with it.) So why don’t we go against the grain of what is happening throughout America? Let’s put aside the name-calling, lack of civility, and protests.
Instead, reach out to our leaders and encourage them. Tell them we appreciate their service. And, rather than assuming intent, integrity, and intelligence, let’s give them a chance to work this out.
Ask them (politely) to shed some light on Fairhope … and not just in the trees.