Consideration In Public And Private Leadership


Address by JOSEPH M. TURNER, Economic Development Specialist

Delivered at the Lost Arrow Resort, Gladwin, Michigan, October 27, 2000

Good afternoon. My thanks to Mike Ford and all of you with Delta Epsilon Chi for inviting me here today. Mike, let me express my hope for your mother’s successful recovery from her recent illness. I thank you for making such a strong effort to complete your tasks related to this conference under very adverse conditions.

Mike asked me to speak about the challenges faced by local units of government and the role personal (and collective) leadership plays in addressing those challenges. I believe there is a fundamental difference between the goals of leadership in private enterprise and government which often gets overlooked. We’ll speak about that today. We’ll also talk about the concept of “change” as it relates to leadership.

The perspective I’ll bring comes from approximately 30 years of working for a local government unit (the city of Saginaw, Michigan) and interactions I’ve had with county, state and federal officials and some media representatives.

We should first clarify the concept of leadership as I’ll be using it. My definition is simple. A ”leader” is someone who will help us overcome an obstacle or navigate troubled waters. It is a person who we expect can accomplish a goal.

An election year is a great time to observe how politicians view leadership. They all seem to speak frequently of their leadership qualities while promising what they’ll accomplish if elected. In the midst of the current election frenzy I am reminded of the words of the American humorist Will Rogers who declared, "Think about it. If only 10 percent of all political promises came true, there would be no need for heaven."

In reality, leadership in the public arena can be really tough, simply because it is public. Decisions one makes are subject to widespread scrutiny on a daily basis. Most of us chaff as decisions makers when just our spouse and children criticize our decisions. Think of the irritation caused by every Tom, Dick and Harry second-guessing you.

Secondly, as a public leader one may “decide” on a course of action, but be forced to seek approval of some committee or legislative body. Which of course, leads to another round of public debate ... on the decision and one’s competency.

Thus, being in the public eye creates its own brand of suffering. The Italian poet Dante is reported to have said, “The hottest places in hell are reserved for those who in time of great moral crises, maintain their neutrality.” That may be true, but it gets pretty heated here on earth when less important decisions are made in a public forum. Constituents don’t hesitate to call their elected officials on the carpet for actual or perceived errors of judgment.

It is this interaction, the expectations of constituents and the goals forced upon a political leader by circumstance, which creates a certain “tension.” This tension is an aspect of public leadership often overlooked or misunderstood. Yet it differentiates leadership in private enterprise from public enterprise. Fairness requires an evaluation which considers these circumstances.

I’d like to use two examples as an illustration of the chasm between expectations of constituents and the goals leaders involved in politicized circumstances must seek:

First, imagine the religious leader who is a guiding light: committed, articulate and strong. A leader who creates rules for proper behavior. In this case, the leader is re warded for denouncing evil, false prophets and erroneous paths. In many situations, religious leadership provides structure for society and moral behavior. Such structure offers peace and stability.

However, what happens if we have in our presence more than one committed, articulate and strong leader? Sometimes an Ireland, with Christians of two sects killing each other: sometimes, a clash of “different” ethnic groups such as in the middle east, the Balkan states or in a number of third world countries.

The same logic applies in a less dramatic way at the local level here in America. For example, when conservationists oppose business interests such as oil exploration. It can apply to any one of a plethora of well organized groups advocating actions consistent with their philosophies and self interests, but opposed by equally vociferous groups acting in their own self interests.

Unlike the leadership demanded of the religious leader, who sees right and wrong, good versus evil: the role of leadership within government is frequently one of bringing diverse viewpoints together. Whether bringing together members of opposing political parties to achieve a common good for the community, or creating and upholding ordinances and laws passed for the same purpose - compromise and reconciliation are the goals of good governance.

Government leaders must create circumstances wherein the participants recognize "possibilities"; solutions they can agree upon. This "conciliation" is exactly the opposite of what most people would consider leadership.

Extremists and fanatics who populate the fringe areas of an argument usually are never satisfied with compromise solutions. The "my way or the highway types" often feel betrayed — by their own leaders and the opponents who may have forged a "deal."

But without compromise and the broad perspective encompassed within reconciliative actions, there would be no peaceful coexistence between diametrically opposed groups. The importance of justice and the power of our laws mandate this approach. In our society they are de signed to not only accommodate, but to encourage "together for a common good."

It is within this type of framework (one in which external special interests push, scheme and vie for influence) where the execution of public leadership is far different than in a non-public environment.

The framework creates a new type of risk too — a cost often not found in other arenas. One cannot slam a fist on a table and fire a constituent. President John F. Kennedy, in his book Profiles in Courage addressed the issue this way: "Where else ... but in the political profes­sion is the individual expected to sacrifice all, including his own career, for the national good." Just as doing what’s best for the company is important in private enterprise, doing what is best for our community is a fundamental premise at every level of public leadership.

At some time, we each assume the mantel of leader­ship in our lives. For some of us it will be within a family unit as our children or spouse look up to us. It may be the willingness of friends to follow our suggestions. It could be a leadership position in volunteer roles we undertake.

Leadership means individual power. This is a little con­fusing in public enterprise because there may have been lots of committees formed to address issues to provide leadership. However, the buck always stops with some­one. As pointed out in an Investors Business Daily publi­cation, the next time you walk through a park, look and see how many statues have been erected to committees.

The best measure of us as individual leaders, is how we treat those with less power than we have. Are we a dicta­tor or a saint? Do we squash those who object or oppose us, or do we acknowledge their intrinsic value? Do we treat their thoughts with respect? Self-preservation aside, do we lift those weaker than us up when possible? It is a question I hope each of you will keep in your hearts during your careers.

Another idea government leaders must consider is the way one must think about the impact of a decision over “time.” For example, a business leader in America is of­ten making decisions based upon near term earnings re­ports usually every three months. They experience great pressure to meet investor’s expectations immediately.

On the other hand, leadership in a public body requires a precept similar to that of the Cherokee Nation. They urge their leaders to "look forward ... think about the im­pact of your decisions on seven generations into the fu­ture."

It is a concept which makes sense immediately, even if we are not consciously aware of it. Timelessness, the con­cept of creating decisions that impact future generations, is woven into the vety fabric of our society. Decisions by public bodies act as the foundations of society.

Relate this idea of “time” to the framers of the consti­tution. More than seven generations have already passed since the onset of their task and most of us hope the docu­ment they created will continue for many more genera­tions. Good public leadership demands contemplating the temporal importance of a decision.

However, lets return back from these grand ideas and focus on the mundane. When conflict arises between a citizen or business and government, I’m not convinced everyone is concerned about what is best for the long run. A lot of constituents want what they want now! They de­mand their rights and figure to hell with arguments over some future “potential” pollution, stupid vehicular traffic loads or planned growth issues. As potential leaders, I want to instill within you an urge to look to the future.

You must also consider the importance of evolution, or “change.” One example is the change of family structure in the U.S. ... It has been said (statistically speaking) the likelihood is that any women born after 1960 in the U.S. will have more husbands than children.

Change and evolution bring with them both new possibilities and new solutions to problems. Futurist and technology forecaster Daniel Burrus, used the singer Natalie Cole, as an example of this evolution. Her father had been dead for many years, but she had a great desire to sing a duet with him. Using modern technology, she was able to achieve her goal and create a highly desired piece of music, by blending recordings of his work with her contemporary singing. Leaders of public bodies must contemplate the impact of "change" in solutions they propose.

According to Nations Cities Weekly Magazine, there were 6.8 million farms in America in 1935; today there are about 1.6 million. Does that mean today’s American’s are starving or that we get less revenue as a nation from agricultural exports?

Of course not. Things have evolved. NYU economists and productivity experts Edward Wolff and William Baumol studied this issue. They said, "in the 18th century it took about 90 percent of the population to produce enough farm products to feed the nation poorly: today a mere 3 percent of the labor force produces unmanageable surpluses of farm products."

Thus, while it is important to protect and foster existing farmlands, as a general premise of public leadership, "change" may mean job generation (economic development) monies are best spent on non-farm activities across large areas of the U.S. The point is, if decision makers incorporate a knowledge of "change" within the decision making process, they’ll make more productive decisions.

Speaking of productivity the two economists just mentioned also addressed changes we are experiencing in our world now, noting: "in its turn, rapid growth of productivity in manufacturing is reducing the share of the labor force needed to meet demands for manufactured goods." Hmm. Productivity reducing manufacturing jobs?

If you analyze manufacturing employment statistics, you’ll find, just like agriculture, there has been a steady decline in the percentage of the workforce needed to manufacture goods in America. It’s been going on since about 1950. The transition from an agrarian society to an industrial society is being followed by a natural “change” from industry to service employment.

Certainly the loss of manufacturing jobs should be ameliorated in whatever way possible, but it is critical that we understand where the world is going. The struggle is one of knowing when to fight for jobs which exist, and when to fight for jobs in new areas of growth. We must not become overwhelmed by evolution. We must work to anticipate and respond.

These transitions from agriculture, to industry to service employment, have created wealth and better lives for all of us. Within the traditionally "low pay" general category "service industry" great changes have occurred as part of the transition.

One measure of "change" is where wealth accumulates. It can be argued, Bill Gates’ became the first of the exclusively rich in history to have acquired his tremendous cache of money from intellectual property and not tangible things such as minerals, land or heavy manufactured goods. Service industries today, offer opportunities for monetary reward which didn’t exist in the past. Substantial money and influence are now part of the "Service" employment category.

So education and ideas are important to leadership and to the challenges we face as the world evolves. I applaud each of you for pursuing your educational goals. This audience covers a broad spectrum in terms of age and I understand that many of you are mixing full time employment with attending college. I did the same thing myself and know it is hard work. However, never forget, what you are doing is particularly beneficial to both your employer and your fellow students. In the classroom, you’ll bring real life experiences to bear on theoretical discussion. That means a lot. In your places of employment, you’ll bring cutting edge knowledge—and that means a lot.

Since this is American baseball’s annual World Series season, I’ll close with the example of Hank Aaron, the great hitter who was renowned for his ability to “see” a pitch. Joe Adcock said of him, "Trying to sneak a pitch past Hank Aaron was like trying to sneak a sunrise past a rooster."

I’m confident that if you continue to pursue your goals in education and leadership experiences, like Mr. Aaron, you’ll see what life pitches at you much more clearly and are bound to hit a home run or two. Thank you for inviting me to join you today.