Imagine a Great Leader: Talking with Federico Peña

Former Denver Mayor Federico Peña is, perhaps, the epitome of the “leader as a community steward” profile. While his leadership inspiration derives from some of the greatest names to have impacted our world, such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Cesar Chavez, and John F. Kennedy, his humble, yet effective approach to serving the needs of the community make him an admirable leader, as well.

Beginning his career in the professional world as a civil rights lawyer, many of Peña’s subsequent leadership positions came at the relentless encouragement of his colleagues. He was asked to run for state legislature in Colorado, even though his hometown is in Southern Texas. With a campaign that emphasized the personal connections with his constituents, Peña won the election. It was a similar situation when Peña was later encouraged to run for Mayor of Denver.

But with all of his tremendous successes, Mr. Peña has not lost sight of those who enabled him to rise to the apex of his career. He readily acknowledges that his work was built upon the work of his predecessors—that when he assumed his position, he did not simply push aside the influence of his predecessors. Furthermore, he often traces the roots of his work back to the values instilled in him by his parents, always recognizing that leadership is the work in a long line of many.

In fact, he enumerated that aspect to us as one of his ten greatest tips about leadership. Among others were the points to “be passionate about what you are doing,” to “surround yourself with people who are smarter than you,” to “be persistent and tenacious,” to “be humble and thankful,” and “to never be complacent, never stop learning, and never stop doing.” With a laugh, Peña added that he had never personally taken a formal leadership course before. Of course, he’s always welcome to sit in with us!

With his concise list of leadership advice, it is easy to assume that the man who helped the people of Denver “Imagine a great city”—and achieve that end—has had it all fall perfectly into place under his watchful eye. After all, he helped Denver get a baseball team and massive stadium; he initiated the transformation of “LoDo” from an urban mess to a cool, thriving social center; and he had a hand in developing on of the greatest airports in the nation. However, Mr. Peña was certain to impart to us a couple of virtuous lessons that he learned through various cases of trial and error.

His most resonate advice was regarding the topic of that great success, and how to handle it once we have it. With resolute firmness, he scanned the room, saying: “The day you start believing all that stuff (the accolades), the next day something crazy will happen that you hadn’t thought of before.” It was a reminder to all of us that the key is to stay grounded in life. That the actions one takes speak volumes more than do the praises of those surrounding you. As he says, “be humble and thankful” for the recognition you get, but never take that popularity for granted or for actual success.

All in all, though, a dialogue with Federico Peña is one that leaves the young leader’s heart empowered and the spirit invigorated. I was lucky enough to have had met Mr. Peña a year prior to his guest lecture for my leadership profile project, but hearing him again with the different context was refreshing. Ultimately, it’s his go-to, can-do/will-do, spry energy that encourages that drive in us to go out and make a difference.

In his conclusion, he left us with a final thought that, I think, wrapped the evening up nicely and provided us with just the impetus to propel us onward. “I’d rather aim high and fall short,” Peña stated, “because it’s probably higher than you would’ve been if you had aimed normally.” It’s simple, but it’s just the motivation we need to collectively boost each other, dream bigger, go out into the community, and do better.

Peña is just the leader to make us believe that we can do more than merely “imagine a great city”—community, world. Now it’s in our hands to go do so.

Written by: Kira Pratt, current PLPer

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