Some careers don’t follow the beaten path, and it makes all the difference. Rhea Little, Mayor of the City of Brentwood, knows a thing about that. Olivia Tomlin Dial with Envision Conference Center, Williamson County’s place to meet, learn and be inspired, asked him about the lessons he’s learned along the way, his involvement in the community — and what the rest of us can do about the little inner voice suggesting, maybe we can do more.
From working in publishing to your family’s auto repair business, and public office — you’ve led a diverse career. What business lessons have helped you in the public sector?
The key to any successful thing is to serve and serve well. You must have integrity, and you have to be true to yourself too. You must understand your strengths and limitations and you must care. Whether it’s the public sector or business, you have to care about the people you serve, but you also have to care about the people employed by the organization. That’s the thing you learn. You also must prioritize things. When I was a student at Belmont University, the old saying in the business department was: You have to make a profit, survive, and if you don’t do the first, you won’t do the second. It’s very important to understand finances and be a good financial steward of what you’ve been trusted with. At the City of Brentwood, our staff is top notch. The Brentwood Police Department and the Brentwood Fire and Rescue Department are some of the best in the world. The John P. Holt Brentwood Library is recognized nationally as one of America’s best libraries and all of this happens even though our city is relatively small with a population of 43,889. I attribute Brentwood’s success as a city to making sure citizens are at the top of our organizational chart. Our employees seek to serve and that makes all the difference in the world.
Many people struggle with speaking up in front of large groups of people. What’s helped you?
I find things I could do better, but I was blessed with a very clear speaking voice at a young age. In elementary school, I was selected for speaking opportunities at assemblies and in front of groups. I attribute my success with public speaking to great teachers and helpful training. Some of the best advice I ever got came from my grandfather’s friend, Mrs. Henry Cannon, who was better known as Minnie Pearl. She used to say, “Love your audience and they’ll love you back.” Well, I don’t know if my audience likes me that much because I’m not usually very entertaining, but that always stuck with me. I’m like everybody else, sometimes I get nervous, and then I will say in my mind, “I love y’all,” and it helps greatly. If public speaking isn’t your gift, then you shouldn’t worry about it.
What drives your commitment to the community? Do you have any advice for those of us who want to get involved, but also feel too busy just trying to keep up with everything already?
I never had a desire to hold public office, until four different individuals, unconnected to each other and all in the same month, said to me, “You would make a great commissioner.” By the time the fourth person said it, I thought, “Okay, Lord, I know I’m pretty slow, but are you trying to tell me something?” I talked to friends, ministers, and other commissioners to seek advice before I decided to run for office in 2009. Once I decided to do it, I thought, if I win, then the good Lord intended for me to be a commissioner. If I lost, then He meant for me to go through a political campaign and learn from it because believe me, you learn things on a campaign that you won’t learn anywhere else. I also decided not to do anything negative in the campaign against others, because if I won, that could be someone I was going to be serving. If you’re going to get involved, it will take sacrifice and setting priorities, so it should be because you want to serve the people, and not for power. There is some honor and privilege with serving that is nice, but the sacrifice far outweighs them. I don’t think everyone is called to serve in politics, but someone could be called to serve on a volunteer board or teach six-year-olds in Sunday school class or serve the poor. The advice I have for others is, if you’re busy and you don’t think you can serve well, then maybe you’re not supposed to serve. Perhaps what you’re doing right now is the service you’re supposed to give instead.
If you do have time to serve, make sure you serve with all your heart. Each of the three times I ran for the Brentwood City Commission, I cut it close to the deadline until I was really sure I was supposed to run, and then it was full speed ahead. You can’t run a race halfway. You must run it all-out. As one of my good friends who ran track in college used to tell me, you’ve got to run all the way through the tape. I’m passionate about politics, but I’m also passionate about my hockey team (Go Preds!).
The greater Nashville area has become a hot spot for visitors in the last couple of decades. How can businesses outside of tourism benefit?
When it comes to tourism, naturally you think of hotels, airlines, rental car companies and restaurants benefitting, but really a variety of businesses benefit. Tourists who visit Nashville will also shop in Brentwood or Cool Springs or take a day trip to Franklin. They will also buy gas or enjoy a meal at a Williamson County restaurant. The average taxpayer in Williamson County saves more than $500 in taxes each year because of tourism. That’s a significant savings.
The City of Brentwood has 14 beautiful parks and many with state-of-the-art fields. Brentwood specifically sees a lot of sports tourism on the weekends, year-round. Youth soccer teams, softball and baseball teams, gymnastics, and cheerleading tournaments are held here. That brings parents and teams to town for a competition. Brentwood hotels are filled mostly with business travelers during the week and then visiting families on the weekends. It’s such a nice, safe community with wonderful amenities. Brentwood’s best attraction is that it is a wonderful community.
Your family has been in this area for a long time, tracing its roots back to the 1790s, and you grew up here. Any advice for newcomers?
My advice for newcomers to Brentwood is to seek to serve and be active in the community. I believe that is why we have such a wonderful city today and for the past 50 years, Brentwood has been incorporated as a municipality. Most of the founders of this community were servants to their God, their country, and their family, and I think people with that kind of attitude are the ones who immediately get active and involved. There are so many wonderful organizations to choose from, start by seeking out what interests you.