Through the telling of her harrowing life story, Rabia Siddique kicked off the 103rd ICMA Annual Conference with her message of how one person has the power to create change and end suffering for many. Siddique, the author of Equal Justice, described her own capacity for resilience in the face of adversity—from being targeted by a pedophile after migrating from her native India to Australia, to suffering from severe post-traumatic stress syndrome related to her military service. She challenged city and county managers to consider how they can become agents of change to improve the lives of those they serve.

Life Lessons in Leadership           

Siddique described how she was able to turn what seemed like catastrophic events into life lessons, or “gifts” as she called them. For example, she said her childhood abuse became a catalyst for her life’s work “to help others to access justice. To give voices to victims of the most abhorrent abuses.”

After getting her law degree, she was recruited by the British Army to work at the International Court of Justice War Crimes Tribunal at the Hague. She was later deployed to serve as a legal adviser to British officers in Iraq, and it was there that she was ordered to help negotiate the release of hostages who were being held by terrorists. In spite of her lack of training and experience, she accessed another gift—the unique combination of her background as a lawyer, her ability to speak Arabic, and her Muslim heritage. While this made her more of a trusted resource than any of her military counterparts, she was terrified by the prospect of being thrust into a war zone with no combat training. A leadership lesson from her father burned in her ears: “We are defined by our actions in times of need. You must step out of your comfort zone to bring about change.” She went on to negotiate the release of the hostages but before the agreement could be finalized, “All hell broke loose,” she said, and a military action ended the standoff with the terrorist.

Siddique wrapped up by connecting her theme of “Courage Under Fire” to the theme of the conference “Building Bridges, Serving the Whole Community.” To effectively lead in divisive times, she suggested probing the answer to these challenging questions:  

  1. Are you prepared to confront your own reality? Is your community diverse or is equity and inclusiveness still an aspiration?
  2. Are you willing to challenge and if necessary, change your perspective?
  3. Are you willing to protect hope at all costs? Hope is the most powerful weapon we have in the fight against hate and violence.
  4. When it really counts, are you prepared to do something uncomfortable? To stand when others remain seated, to speak when others are silent.

Other Opening Session Highlights

Lee Feldman, 2016-17 ICMA president, kicked off the conference, on track to be the largest in ICMA history, with a rousing speech about the importance of local government leaders in the current political environment. “We build bridges, we build roads…we build things that bring communities together,” he said. “We also build trust and that’s not something you can accomplish in a 140-character tweet.” Feldman introduced Bob Schultze, president and CEO of ICMA-RC, who talked about the importance of getting an early jump on retirement planning. City Manager Sheryl Sculley also addressed the audience celebrating the growth, beauty, and culture of San Antonio.  

This keynote session as well as 15 other sessions are available via the ICMA Virtual Conference.