“Politico” is not a job I have included on my LinkedIn profile—yet. But having recently served as campaign manager for a local city council election, I certainly earned the stripes. While I’m not ready to pen the book “Everything I Need to Know, I Learned on the Campaign Trail,” I am surprised by how applicable the takeaways are to my “day job” building and sustaining communities.
It definitely takes courage to run for public office for the first time in 2021, and though it wasn’t exactly my birthright to be involved in this campaign, it wasn’t a role I could easily decline. (My husband was the candidate!) Nepotism, however, did not shield me from learning three important lessons from the campaign trail that stretch far beyond Election Day.
Lesson One: People Are Full of Surprises—Joys and Oys
Having lived in my community for more than 24 years, I thought I knew it reasonably well. Knew the doers and the givers, the talkers and the sideliners. It’s OK that I was right only about half the time. Many good friends were supportive in every way they could be: time, talent or treasure. The other half held many surprises: frequent dinner guests who couldn’t find a positive word to share, quiet ones who were suddenly emboldened in opposition. And good surprises, too, like the acquaintance who is now a close friend and the neighbor who is now a trusted adviser.
Key takeaway: Don’t box people in too tightly. Give (donors/employees/friends) space to surprise you.
Lesson Two: Buck Up! Let Things Roll Off Your Back or They’ll Crush You
Today, being thick-skinned is recommended for most professions from teacher to fundraiser to president. With years of experience in two of those three, you’d think I would be steeled to not take people’s barbs personally. Perhaps it’s my proximity to the candidate, but I confess to having visceral reactions when I perceived people as unfairly challenging my cause/candidate. Turns out my protective armor clouded my vision and veered the discussion off the issues, which served no one well.
Key takeaway: Don’t take opposition personally. Use it as an opportunity to enlighten and be enlightened.
Lesson Three: Be In It to Win It!
This one I learned from my candidate who modelled, every day for six months, driving toward one goal. Singularity of purpose made decision-making about activities easy: If it didn’t get us one more vote/dollar/lawn sign, we didn’t do it! When all the energy of the team goes in the same direction, it creates a positive feedback loop. Having a visionary leader with skin in the game propels everyone to drive toward the goal, even when significant obstacles (viruses, competition, apathy) exist.
Key takeaway: Don’t hold back your enthusiasm because of how it might be perceived by others. Own your leadership confidently.
As the polls close and the votes are tallied in New York, it would be great to win after a prolonged effort. Seeing people at their best and their worst is thrilling and disappointing. Waging an uphill battle, even for a cause you believe in, is exhausting and inspiring. So many times, I asked that age-old question of whether the glass is half full or half empty. Then I remember my engineer daughter who says that by virtue of physics, it’s always both.
Meta takeaway: No matter what trail you’re on, when you stretch and grow, you win.
Beth Grafman is a proud member of JWI’s Jewish Communal Women’s Leadership Project 2021 Cohort and serves as east coast director of American Friends of Israel Sport Center for the Disabled. Born and raised in Chicago, Beth now lives in White Plains with just her husband, Allan, as their four children have grown and flown.