“Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans …” President John F. Kennedy, Jan. 20, 1961
We are all familiar with the hallowed military tradition of the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace and Arlington Cemetery’s Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, where guards change so that new guards replace the guard before them to take on a new shift.
American history is the story of the changing of the guard — a passing of the torch — from one generation to another. In 1980, The Washington Post columnist David Broder wrote one of my favorite books, “Changing of the Guard: Power and Leadership in America,” portending the shift in power from the generation of leaders molded by the Great Depression and World War II to the baby boomers whose shaping experiences were the Vietnam War, the 1960s civil rights marches and Watergate. Broder told the stories of those new leaders about to take over America’s city halls, state houses and Capitol Hill.
The recent election of 34-year-old Justin Bibb as mayor of Cleveland is a strong signal that Cleveland is changing hands from the baby boomers to generations X (born 1965 to 1980), generation Y millennials (born 1981 to 1996) of which Mayor Bibb is one, and generation Z (born 1997 to 2016). Generation Z will soon make up more than 20% of the workplace, and generation Y will soon make up 50% of the workforce. At the same time, the U.S. is becoming more racially and ethnically diverse, and those patterns are magnified in cities like Cleveland.
In the Greater Cleveland public, private and nonprofit sectors, new leaders have emerged or will soon emerge. In the public sector, we’ve seen not only the election of Bibb but also five new members of Cleveland City Council, a new Cleveland City Council President, Blaine Griffin, and a new congresswoman, Shontel Brown. In one year, there will be a new county executive because Armond Budish is not seeking re-election. Community leaders such as Rick Chiricosta, president, CEO and chairman of Medical Mutual, Akram Boutros, president and CEO of the MetroHealth System, Alex Johnson, president of Cuyahoga Community College, Augie Napoli Jr., president and CEO of United Way of Greater Cleveland, and Gina Vernaci, president and CEO of Playhouse Square, have announced that they will be stepping down in the next year.
In the nonprofit sector, there are even more new leaders, such as Anthony Richardson, George Gund Foundation; Baiju Shah, Greater Cleveland Partnership; Janice Murphy, Sisters of Charity Health System; Tania Menesse, Cleveland Neighborhood Progress; Bernadette Kerrigan, Achievement Centers for Children; Bill Garvey, Greater Cleveland Film Commission; Katheryn Heideman, Cleveland Institute of Art; Ralph Johnson, Breakthrough Public Schools; Michael Deemer, Downtown Cleveland Alliance; Tim Tramble, St. Luke’s Foundation; Cathy Belk, Deaconess Foundation, and the list goes on.
This is an exciting time for Cleveland and Northeast Ohio. The speed of innovation increases by the day, and with it a new generation of leaders has emerged who grew up with smartphones that are millions of times more powerful than the Apollo 11 guidance computers that first put Neil Armstrong on the moon. They have much-needed fresh perspectives, know far more about the world than we baby boomers did at the same age and are not afraid to disrupt the status quo.
But this changing of the guard is an evolution not a revolution. Some skeptics will say Bibb is too young and inexperienced to be mayor. Well, Thomas Jefferson was 33 years old when he wrote the Declaration of Independence. Some skeptics will say the older generation needs to step aside. Well, Ben Franklin was 70 when he signed the Declaration of Independence. All of those skeptics are wrong. Age has never been more irrelevant.
I’ve never been more optimistic about our city’s and region’s future, but I do have some unsolicited advice for our new generation of talented leaders. You are coming to power at a time when the world has never been more volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous. At a time when there are far more questions than answers, many more senior leaders still have much to offer as we all chart a new course together for our city and our region. Our country was founded by multiple generations working together toward a common goal. Reach out to those with experience and historical perspective and work with them as your advisers and partners. None of us are as smart as all of us.
Lee Fisher is dean and Joseph C. Hostetler-BakerHostetler chair in law at Cleveland-Marshall College of Law at Cleveland State University. He is the former Ohio attorney general, lt. governor, director of the Ohio Department of Development, chair of the Ohio Third Frontier Commission, president and CEO of the Center for Families and Children, president and CEO of CEOs for Cities, state representative and state senator.