A leader answers the call

Action, encouragement, compassion and trust are only a few of the hallmarks of effective leadership.
Joe Parisi standing in front of a building
Photo by Sharon Vanorny

By Joe Parisi

I’ve been asked to share a little of what my life has been like during the current crisis and, honestly, I’ve struggled with that request for fear it could unfairly highlight my work at the expense of the heroic work being done 24/7 by so many people throughout our community. From health care providers to first responders, from grocery store clerks to food bank volunteers, you cannot round a corner in this community without running into a hero — people I stand in awe of every day.

I get to see their work from a unique vantage point. I’m witness to the multiple layers of response and coordination between the public, private and non-profit sectors. I’m aware of what’s going on “behind the scenes” and on the ground throughout the community. Like so many others, I am living in a state of constant COVID-19 response seven days a week, and that gives me a close-up view of the challenges we’re confronting, as well as the collective greatness of this community.

Our task is daunting, frankly, but while we can’t control every aspect of this pandemic, we are far from helpless — far from being passive participants. Every one of us has a role to play — from providing care to staying home in order to contain the spread — and every action is critical to the outcome.

My role during this crisis requires me to absorb a great deal of information. I strive to be both deliberate and decisive, to triage, organize and implement responses while creating an environment that allows those around me to utilize their full potential.

I believe the key to leadership is to encourage, enable and allow people to bring their talent and compassion forth. Sometimes it’s leading, framing and directing that charge; sometimes it’s standing shoulder to shoulder, and other times it’s standing back and letting the community be great. Our current crisis requires all of the above.

Dane County was the first in the state to experience a positive test result for the coronavirus. At that point, our department heads were directed to implement their continuity of operations plans — our alternative procedures for continuing to function under various disruptive scenarios.

County government has myriad responsibilities, not the least of which is working to provide a safety net for our most vulnerable residents. We have 2,400 employees and hundreds of organizations with whom we contract to provide services. While there is not room in this column to describe every action undertaken in response to this crisis, suffice to say our people achieved a Herculean task without breaking stride; critical services have remained intact — and in many cases have been ramped up, without interruption.

As we were getting our own house in order, we were also meeting and coordinating with our community partners across the spectrum: the University of Wisconsin–Madison, Public Health Madison & Dane County, public schools, government partners, health care providers, and community-based organizations and service providers.

The Dane County Emergency Operations Center was activated and our emergency management team went into disaster-response mode, working with the above-mentioned partners to coordinate responses and disseminate information and resources.

One example of the many initial efforts undertaken was the important lift achieved in the homeless services area. Working with the city of Madison and many partners, we were able to prevent what could have been a frightening scenario by moving more than 300 people experiencing homelessness into hotels and, thanks to the city, providing an alternate single-men’s shelter that allowed us to achieve proper social distancing.

This is but one of many examples of the work being done by the untold number of unsung heroes to whom I referred earlier. I would be remiss if I did not also mention the unparalleled and critical work being performed by the staff of Public Health Madison & Dane County. We rely on their guidance as the basis for every decision we make. If we have worked seven days a week for the past month, they have somehow worked eight. The same can be said for countless county staff members; from my executive staff to department heads to frontline workers, never have I witnessed such a display of selfless service.

It’s tempting to say nothing could prepare us for the situation we face today, but I don’t think that’s true. I believe our entire body of life experiences — personal, professional and spiritual — have provided us with the tools we need: the resilience, wisdom and strength to draw upon as we confront this crisis.

We also have the experiences of past generations. My parents grew up during the Great Depression and came of age during World War II. These were experiences that shaped  who they were: their character, values and perspectives. For my generation, these events were lessons in history books. Unlike those who lived them, we knew how the stories ended before we knew the stories. As it was for my parents’ generation, we don’t yet know how this story ends. But we do know it will end.

While that can’t happen soon enough, we’re still in the relatively early stages of this event. It will get more difficult before it gets better, and we will all be tested and challenged to be our best selves. Based on what I’ve witnessed so far, this community will answer the call, grounded in the knowledge that if we all look out for one another, we will all have someone looking out for us.

Once the virus is conquered, we will need to rely on each other even more as we chart a new course to recovery. And like generations before us, we will do so with a renewed sense of what really matters: family, friends and community.

Joe Parisi has served in the county executive role since 2011 after six years in the state Assembly and eight years as Dane County clerk.