Believeland. The Secret Sauce of City Success.

Believeland. The Secret Sauce of City Success.

By: Lee Fisher, Senior Advisor, CEOs for Cities   |   @fisher4cities

My father-in-law, the legendary West Side Cleveland City Councilman Michael J. Zone was a prisoner of war in WWII.  Less than 60 days after he and Mary Zone (who served in Cleveland City Council after Mike died) were married, Mike enlisted in the army; and 30 days later he was caught by the Germans in the Battle of the Bulge.

Mike never talked about his experience, even to his own family, so everyone wondered how Mike survived as a POW when stronger, healthier, and younger men did not. One day we found the answer.

After Mike died, Mary pulled from her closet Mike Zone’s diary that he kept as a prisoner of war. He never showed it to his children (one of whom, Matt, has proudly followed in his parents’ footsteps as a Cleveland Councilman).

It’s the most remarkable thing I’ve ever read. He told stories about the 9 children he and Mary would someday raise. Most revealing were the detailed, intricate recipes from a man who loved to eat but had no idea how to cook.

How did Mike survive? He could see beyond the barbed wire and the cruelty of the guards and could see something that kept him alive. He could see his own future. In fact, he could even taste it.

When I had the honor of serving as Ohio Attorney General, I met young men in prisons who could not see their future. Any future. For many of them, prison was a land beyond pain. For them, their zip code was their destiny- lost potential, lost productivity, lost hope.

I’ve come to believe that the greatest gift you can give to a person- or a city- is the ability to imagine, envision, and believe in your own future.

Which brings me to the secret sauce of city success.

There is no shortage of theories about the secret sauce for city success. Some experts argue that geography matters more than ever and success depends on physical capital and authentic placemaking. Others submit that in a knowledge economy, cities, regions, and states must build human capital and creative talent. Some insist that social capital and economic opportunity ultimately define the soul of an economy. Still others predict that the future is about smart digital capital and harnessing the power of technology.

Each of these theories alone is wrong.

A successful city must have all of these elements, and the good news is that from Gordon Square to Public Square, Cleveland is creating compelling public places, fostering creative and educated talent, and charting pathways for economic opportunity and smart technology.

But a city must have something more or the sauce will fall flat. It must believe in itself.  Like my father-in-law, Mike Zone, it must believe that despite the inevitable setbacks, fumbles, and failures it will face, there is a future to strive for and to believe in.

I was reminded of this as I watched the CAVS victory parade from the steps of Cleveland City Hall on June 22. It was a sight I’ll never forget. Over a million Trump, Clinton, Sanders, Cruz, Kasich supporters; police officers and community activists; east siders and west siders. We were one city. We were connected by a common pride and a common belief not just in our professional basketball team but also in our city. Cleveland became Believeland.

Virtually every small and mid-size American city I have visited over the past five years in my role as President and CEO of CEOs for Cities has had some form of inferiority complex. But those cities that are reinventing themselves are embracing their failures as lessons learned and are celebrating and investing in their distinctive assets. No more putting themselves down or feeling sorry for themselves. These cities understand that failures and successes are not moments, they are trajectories.

As Harvard Business School Professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter notes in her book, Confidence, about the relationship between the winning and losing streaks of sports teams and how companies and cities succeed, “Cynics are too ready to dismiss positive messages about will, team spirit, and motivation as self-help babble. They are wrong.”

In Des Moines, Iowa, one of those cities with an historic inferiority complex that has gained a new self-confidence, the most popular t-shirt in the city is “Des Moines. Hell, Yes.”  Like Des Moines, our attitude will determine Cleveland’s altitude. To succeed, Believeland must be more than a slogan. It must be who we are. We are a city where, in the words of LeBron James, nothing is given; everything is earned. We all must step up and accept the challenge, and proudly call Cleveland our home no matter what victories and losses lie ahead. We have the earned the right to believe in ourselves.


This article was originally printed in Community Leader magazine.

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