When I immigrated to America 13 years ago I first settled in a leafy suburb on the outskirts of Detroit. Naïve and ignorant to the city's struggles, I ventured in one day to 'explore' the downtown area. I had spent the prior two years working in Antwerp, Belgium - a city rich in architectural beauty and culture. With Antwerp's beauty fresh in my mind, I was horrified at what I saw in Detroit. Burnt out buildings, abandoned factories, neglected parks. What had happened here?
Everyone I knew had their own answer to that question, and an abundance of advice around why I shouldn't be going there in the first place. I didn't listen. I tried to learn as much about the city as I could. I read about it and attended lectures on the city's history given by a local rabbi. Above all, I kept going back. I took photographs, talked with people, and found pockets of optimism that ultimately led to the true renewal now underway.
Detroit is already a very different place than it was 13 years ago. It has a long road ahead, but it has improved dramatically in a relatively short space of time and the future is beginning to look promising. This statement might seem outrageous to those who have been exposed to Detroit's struggles through media reports, but it will seem perfectly reasonable to those who have experienced Detroit's people and culture for themselves.
As a leader, you can learn much from Detroit's journey, her mistakes and her spirit:
Whatever your situation, or that of your team/company . . . there is always a way forward and a way to drive improvement. Chose to seek solutions rather than to point out problems. Look to the visionaries leading the Detroit turnaround (like Dan Gilbert) or the spirited young entrepreneurs who are bring new energy and ideas to the city. I have heard more negative things about Detroit than I care to remember. Usually by people who have not spent a great deal of time there.
No matter how bad things are, they can be turned around. Progress can be made, one day at a time and one block at a time. The best thing you can do when faced with a difficult situation is 'anything'. Take ownership. Volunteer. Speak up. Do what you can to be part of the solution.
The best leaders know how to learn from the past while still pushing forward with a determined spirit. Nothing embodies that attitude like the city of Detroit. I applaud and admire the entrepreneurs and investors who didn't listen to popular opinion and instead decided to double down on the spirit of the Detroit people.
Detroit was once one of the richest cities in America and the world. It was a pioneer in innovation. It was admired. In the city's downfall, we learn how nothing can be taken for granted. In its resurgence, we learn that nothing is beyond repair. Detroit is rising again and I couldn't be more proud. If you lead a team that is thriving, don't assume it always will be. Strive for success and improvement every single day. Whatever your challenges, chose to be positive, have faith, and move forward.
If you visit Detroit today, you'll see a different city that you might have just 13 years ago. It's remarkable, and it's just beginning to take shape. Even more remarkable are some of the people you will meet there.