It was going to be a long drawn-out process.  That was if everything fell into place perfectly, if all parties involved were in total agreement, and if there were no unexpected complications.  That would be three big ifs in any project, but in this one they were enormous.  From the onset, there were no ifs, ands, or buts about it, this was going to be all but a vertical climb the whole way.

The project had been discussed for years, but every time it looked like they’d get started, something caused it to be shelved yet again.   The mission of the project was to create a community park on a 21-acre parcel of land donated by three families.  Although generous, each family had some conditions attached to their benevolence.   The land was situated in two municipalities and three school districts.  So, in addition to the three families, there were two teams of supervisors, three boards, five budgets, and lots of expectations and agendas.   Fortunately, they all agreed on the mission of building a community park.  What they didn’t agree on so readily was what that park should include and how it would be built

At their first meeting, it was decided that each family, municipality, and school district would have one member on a board of directors, and those representatives would be seated at the start of the next meeting.  Near the end of that initial meeting, Althea Michaelson Weatherby, the matriarch of one of the donating families, said, “A community park will benefit all of us, particularly our children and grandchildren for generations to come.   Knowing and appreciating why we’ve come together will power us and hold us together throughout the process.”

At the next meeting, the first order of business was to seat a board of directors then select a chairperson.  Mrs. Weatherby was the name on most everyone’s mind.  Although nobody said it, her statement at the end of the previous meeting may have prompted their support.  With little formality or fanfare, it was decided that she would be the chairperson of the board of directors.

As had been anticipated and expected, the deliberations were complicated.  Personal and small-group interests figured large in how the diverse interests of the several stakeholder groups were to be met.  At times progress was smooth.  At other times, it looked like the project may once again be shelved.   But each time that happened, the chairperson offered a calm restatement of her comment from the first meeting.  And each time the message was a reminder of why they had come together on this project.

Budget difficulties became more of a problem as the project progress, because each of the groups represented had some specifics they wanted to see included.  As a result, the project became bigger than initially planned.  That led to an increasing number of federal regulations, state guidelines, and local code ordinances.  There were countless back-and-forth discussions, and give-and-take compromises that slowed their progress.  But each time this happened, Althea was there to remind them of their common ground, their mission, and why they had come together.

Pretty much on time and actually not much over budget, the project was done.  One of the last tasks of the board before opening the park was to name it.  This wasn’t going to be easy.  There were lots of suggestions; some of them were rather self-serving.  And as had been her role throughout, Mrs. Wetherby suggested that it should be named for their communities, since they were the reason why it was established.

Almost in unison, the name “A. M. Wetherby Community Park” was suggested and approved unanimously.  The two other families had given more land than hers.  There were several people who donated far more money than she had.  Her suggestions for what the park should include and how best to accomplish that weren’t all that numerous or significant.  Her contribution was neither immediately recognizable nor really appreciated until the project was over.   That contribution was her keen, unwavering focus on why this project was undertaken, as well as her ongoing efforts to maintain that focus among the well-intended yet uniquely diverse members of the board.

Whether leading a group or yourself, working to understanding challenges and opportunity is task one, followed by developing ideas for how to proceed.  Knowing where to begin building support, attracting the right people to involve, and thoughtful timing come next.  But the most significant and enduring guidance leaders can bring to their groups or themselves involves knowing, building common ground for, and remaining committed to the essential question of why.   Without coming to terms with why you or a group you’re leading is doing what you are, all the other considerations have nothing to hold them together.