It’s OK to Feel

In a box buried somewhere in my closet rests a legal pad containing the notes I took during my introductory MPA class – “Public Affairs Concepts and Theory.”  Inscribed in large capital letters on the pad’s front page is a three-word statement – “THINK, NOT FEEL.”

My professor, the late Dr. Jerzy Hauptmann, a towering figure at Park University, delivered that message to my classmates and me on an August evening in 1991.  A survivor of a Nazi POW camp, he believed that each of us should speak and write with the courage of our convictions.

To him, using a phrase such as “I feel that ‘reinventing government ’ oversimplifies the challenges of 1990s public administration” made a less persuasive argument because, from his perspective, feeling was and is amorphous.

Dr. Hauptmann wanted to believe in the rational model, yet he admitted that most of us frequently make less-than-rational decisions. I recall in that introductory class his lecture on Herbert Simon and the concept of satisficing, a bounded rationality perspective.

In the years following my graduation, I aimed to exemplify intellect and analytical thinking.  I am convinced that my MPA student experience facilitated me burying my emotions long after my graduation.

“THINK, NOT FEEL” is a hard lesson to unlearn.

As I embarked and continued upon my journey as an ASPA officer, a different voice – one decidedly non-rational and very emotional – began to call out from a space deep within me.  While I knew I needed to focus on strategic planning, budgets and the like, I felt like speaking about fairness, respect and human decency.

This voice expressed itself at recent ASPA conferences, sometimes without me actually uttering words.

At the 2010, 2011 and 2012 ASPA Annual Conferences, I participated on panels discussing to what extent professional public administration associations “walk their talk” in terms of social equity.

For my 2010 and 2011 PowerPoint presentations, I juxtaposed audio from Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech with slides addressing the somewhat slow evolution of social equity within ASPA.

At the 2012 ASPA Annual Conference in Las Vegas, my PowerPoint presentation featured photos of socioeconomically challenged neighborhoods of conference host cities with John Lennon’s “Imagine” playing in the background.

To view, the PowerPoint, click here.

By touching attendees’ emotions, I delivered more effective and powerful presentations than anything I might have orated myself.

Speaking of touching people, several of my ASPA National Colleagues concluded their terms of service during the past conference, and I wanted to send them off with more than a handshake.  I trolled their Facebook pages for family photos, compiled a list of their accomplishments, inserted an appropriate audio clip (“So Long, Farewell” from The Sound of Music) and secretly unveiled a PowerPoint tribute at the end of the meeting.  Witnessing their reactions was priceless!

Sometimes in professional organizations we often attempt to be so unemotional and formal that we miss opportunities to celebrate the real friendships and real connections which develop between members.

Likewise, when we define public administration as a science, we overlook the power of public service and its ability to express our collective desire to make a meaningful difference in our communities, our nations and our world (hat tip to Bob and Janet Denhardt).

As I stood behind the podium at the opening of the 2012 Annual Conference in Las Vegas, I attempted to look presidential.  Inside, however, I felt a range of emotions, not the least of which was gratitude.  I remain grateful for my friends in the audience that day, grateful for my family’s love throughout my ASPA tenure, grateful for my University’s patience and support; and grateful for my professor and mentor, Dr. Hauptmann, even though I had to unlearn the first lesson he taught me.

When I served as a pallbearer at Dr. Hauptmann’s funeral, I remained so stoic that I neither shed a tear during nor after the service.  Today, my eyes well up when I recall him.

If I was teaching Park University’s introductory MPA course, the one Dr. Hauptmann himself created, I would begin the first class with the following statement – “It’s OK to feel.”

After all, we’re human.

Photo Credits: Park.edu; copp.utsa.edu; 

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