In the popular imagination, a leader is a lonely, visionary figure who is driven and stands out ahead of the crowd. Recent studies, however, emphasize the importance of teamwork in effective leadership. Although history is often written in a shorthand way that credits a single individual with big changes and movements, in fact one of the critical characteristics of impactful leaders has always been their ability to attract and empower a group of talented, secondary leaders who become the team that co-creates, refines and implements a vision.

That was certainly the case in the progressive reform movement that transformed not just the government, but also the culture, of Cincinnati after World War I. Too often the work of the Cincinnatus Association and the Charter Committee between 1920 and 1930 gets credited entirely to Murray Seasongood rather than the dozens of people who made these organizations effective enough to reverse 40 years of mismanagement and decline in the City under political bosses George Cox and Rudolph Hynicka.

A window into the role of second-tier leadership comes through the wonderfully documented life of Herbert Koch. When he was born in 1894, his mother began keeping a diary and a scrapbook for her son. On her death 15 years later, Koch took them over and for the next 56 years he wrote at least a page a day in the diary. Every night he pasted photographs of Cincinnati daily life (there are thousands), newspaper clippings, theater tickets and playbills, the agendas of every meeting he attended and even unused streetcar transfers in his scrapbooks.

Koch was involved in many aspects of Cincinnati life. He graduated from the University of Cincinnati and fought in WWI. He went on to be a lawyer, the manager of the local Morris Plan Bank (which pioneered installment loans for working-class people), taught part-time in the UC College of Business and wrote historical pieces for WLW radio.

After WWI, Koch was one of the dozens of well-educated, idealistic young men who had fought to “save the world for democracy” and returned determined to save Cincinnati. Led by former congressman Victor Heintz, they formed the Cincinnatus Association.

These practical idealists did not start with answers or overarching theories about how to reform Cincinnati; they just gathered every week to explore and debate everything from whether or not to tear down and replace the dilapidated Music Hall, the best design for the Eighth Street Viaduct and the proper site for a municipal airport (Lunken).

Herbert Koch faithfully attended almost every meeting and when he went home, he wrote a frank commentary on the proceedings in his diary. After a meeting in November 1927, for example, he observed that Bleecker Marquette, the great housing reformer, “very much bored everyone.”

After voters adopted a new City Charter in 1924 and elected a Charter majority for council in 1925 to implement it, the emboldened Charterites turned their attention to reforming Hamilton County government. The strategy was to put competent, honest people into office. They didn’t get very far, but in 1926 Charles P. Taft II was elected county prosecutor. Koch joined him as an assistant prosecutor. Taft lasted only one term and the Republican organization successfully beat back other efforts.

A new election law went into effect in 1930 requiring voters for the first time to sign their name to receive a ballot. Koch and Heintz traveled around together that day as part of the Trouble Squad to make sure the law was properly enforced.

Few of us will ever exercise the power to impose our wills or to stir great movements because of the force of personality or our commanding brilliance. But if we approach leadership through the lens of team collaboration, then a much wider circle of us can have influence, if we are willing to join a team and engage in the hard work it takes to lift the community. 

Dan Hurley is an historian and the Director of Leadership Cincinnati for the Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber.