Op-Ed: A Perspective on Leadership

Part 1: Leader or Authority Figure?

Leadership is all about responsibility, clarity of purpose and decisiveness. Certainly ethics and common sense play a major role as well. The pathway that a leader follows throughout his or her lifetime is lengthy, with many pitfalls along the way. Lessons are learned, mistakes are made and ultimately character, resolve, honesty and integrity prevail. That pathway will not be discussed here today due to space constraints. What I will say however, is that while true leadership is not for the faint of heart, most men and women who have enjoyed success in a leaders role come to realize that leading is so much easier and rewarding than following; and they just dont understand why more people dont see it that way. I simply do not have an answer to that question, other than to say that we cannot all be leaders. You cannot lead if there is no one out there willing to follow.

Leaders are decisive. They gather their facts on the issue at hand from their allies and opponents, or even enemies, and, if they are empowered and have the experience to do so, they make a decision and take the responsibility for it. They relish doing so. They stand up and say, This is on my watch, and it is mine and mine alone to do. And they mean itnot just some lame zeitgeist off the cuff remark that rings so hollow with us from individuals that have not one ounce of leadership ability. The overwhelming majority of the time, they have made the right call, again based on their experience, common sense, and their uncanny ability to sort out right from wrong.

There are times however, when mistakes are made. A wrong call has taken place and the leader realizes that he has erred. He (or she) has booted it! Show me someone that professes to be a leader and claims to have never erred and I will show you someone who has never entered the fray. You learn from your mistakes and move ahead. Let us hope that lives were not put at risk due to those mistakes. That same person will then do everything possible to make sure that he, his subordinates, and his superiors alike, do not make that same mistake again. And, every bit as important, with dignity and humility, that person will stand up and say, I WAS WRONG! How many times during our lifetime have we yearned to hear those words? As often as not, upon hearing them, we would put the issue to bed right then and there. We would conclude that the person was only human and deserving of another chance to succeed. It is human nature to do so.

I ask you, how many times have you heard a politician (in the roll of an authority figure) do something like that? The answer is not likely! Those words are simply not in their vocabulary. Most politicians are not true leaders. They are dilettantes. They deal in shades of gray. Somehow they manage to turn straight forward issues into convoluted ones, and they are in a react mode most of the time. They manage by committee, for there is strength in numbers there. They never let a good crisis or raging controversy go to waste. That is until the going gets really tough and then what do they do? Absolutely nothing! They are experts at postponing the inevitableand while they are doing nothing, they still manage to put in place an insane number of processes and procedures to insure all of us that they have things under control. Fortunately most of us, at least in this community are smart enough not to be lured down that rabbit hole. Lastly, they are simply not willing to take responsibility for anything that goes wrong, or for something that doesnt go at all! Most politicos were absent the semester that responsibility was taught in junior high school. The overwhelming majority of the time, when an issue or task at hand fails, it is due to the lack of decisiveness, and again, lack of clarity of purpose on the part of the politicians involved

Here is a surefire way to be a success.at failure…. and how to never be given a leadership role of any importance.

1. Talk and talk and talkpontificate and talk some more, when you should really be listening.

2. Talk with authority about issues that you know absolutely nothing about and make no attempt to become knowledgeable therein, rather you continue on as if you wrote the book on it.

3. Never ever let yourself fall into that deadly trap of allowing yourself to consider another point of view.failure is imminent.

Without trying, Ive just described the path that so many politicians follow right off the cliff!

On the other hand, here is a perfect example of a vital and true leader in our community. That would be Mammoth Lakes Fire Chief, Brent Harper. Chief Harper cannot afford to deal in shades of gray nor can he afford to vacillate when making a decision. From day one, the Chief has presented himself to most factions of our community, time and time again, advising us, educating us and almost demanding of us that we learn how to protect ourselves from ourselves, both in the home and our community at large, from the ravages of fire. The Chief would rather prevent fires than have to fight them, having done plenty of both during his long career. That sea of gold braid adorning his dress blues attests to that. His rank of Chief was hard earned and is richly deserved.

Take a look at the firefighters and EMTs in our community. I know most of them. They all exude presence, professionalism and pride. All of them. And they back it all up with their actions when and where needed. Ladies and gentlemen all. Not to mention heroes. I would like to think that those traits in some part were instilled in them by their chief, past, present and hopefully in the future for that is what leaders do. Our fire chief leads by example and his firefighters (our firefighters) follow his orders without question. Chief Harpers leadership role is one where image matters, character counts and above all, decisiveness is imperative, and there is no doubt about it!

Ill carry his bags any day!

Part 2: Our Future Leaders

My comments today are far and away the most important, having to do with the future leadership of this community. There are so many of you that have been successful in a leadership role throughout your lifetime. I have spoken to several of you about your prospects of running for office in Mammoth Lakes, as I am sure have many others. No doubt you have weighed many important issues in that regard. I wont list them here because they are obvious to us all, and certainly to you, whoever you are as well.

If you, in the days and weeks ahead, are still on the fence about fulfilling a leadership role, then might I suggest to you, in the words of the great laureate of England, Samuel Johnson, when he said, Nothing will ever be accomplished if all possible objections are considered.” Amen brother! In other words, ‘nothing ventured, nothing gained.

There will however, be no clarion call asking you to step forward. The call to serve and to lead has no sound. It comes from within. The United States Navy is currently using some of the above in their recruiting ads of late. Suits me! You might want to consider this as well (whoever you are), having most likely not worn the mantle of leadership in this town, nor have you walked in any of our leaders shoes. I would submit that every man and woman that has stepped forward to serve in this community, at any level and often with little or no remuneration, are good and decent people. They are simply doing their level best to do their level best with regards to moving our community forward. Make no mistake about it. Undoubtedly, many of them are acquaintances and friends of yours. It stands to reason. There comes a time, however, when you are going to have to put your friendships aside (a very tough thing to do in a small town and, I might add, those serving us have had to do the very same thing), and tell yourself that you can do a better job than the person or persons who will run against you. There is just no other way to say it.

So you have decided to run for town council…Here’s hoping that you run a strong, ethical, courteous and respectful campaign. To not be respectful of your opposition in this small town is a surefire formula for failure. You will stand a good chance of losing! Might I also suggest to you that, in my opinion, this community is going to from now on take a much more proactive role in electing our town leaders. First of all, “A public office is a public trust.” (Charles Sumner speaking to the Senate…quote now is common property.) First, last and foremost, you are going to have to earn our trust and you are going to have to win our confidence. You are going to have to convince the citizens of this community that you have a clear eyed, decisive vision that will lead us all into better times. This town is aching for true leadership. Goodness only knows we see it so seldom, but we still know what it looks like. We are looking for a person whose presence and obvious leadership abilities stand out like a blinking hot pink neon sign.

Lastly, before you make your decision to run or not, might I, again as a citizen of one, suggest to you, incumbent or otherwise, that if you are going to run for office because you can’t wait to get involved, or stay involved in the playing of politics and the heady mesmerizing effect that it surely will have upon you, that you consider running for office elsewhere, possibly Bolivia! Mammoth Lakes is fully laden to the gunwales and almost awash with politicians. We dont need more of them, rather we need leaders. It is my fervent belief and ardent hope that that ship is about to sail, and to a place far, far away. Hopefully not with you on it.

So you have successfully run for office and have won election to lead us. It is a common
thread that goes through so many newly elected officials minds when they think to
themselves, Ive got four years to prove myself.” I will submit to you that you have
started off on the wrong foot. This community is going to ask you from day one, “What
have you done lately?” We are not going to be dazzled by your efforts, rather we want to
be gratified by your results. And, I will submit to you that the differences between effort
and results are vast.

We are not going to want to hear from you tricky little catchphrases that have become so vogue. A perfect example would be management by walking around. (That phrase was coined by a friend of mine, the late Don Hewlett of Hewlett Packard, decades ago and utilized with great success.) Talking about such things is one thing, and doing them is another. I would submit to a newly elected councilman that as your schedule permits, and hopefully with regularity, you make it a point to visit many of our veteran merchants and a lot of the newer ones as well. When you arrive, and after they have picked themselves off of the floor having swooned in a dead faint and then dusted themselves off, you might find that they have something to say, good, bad or indifferent, and that you might learn something. To the rest of the council, I would simply say that what is good for the goose is good for the gander. Our former Mayor and longtime Councilman, Kirk Stapp, did a grand job of getting about town regularly. Not because he said so, but because people like me saw him do so. To that end, I swear that somewhere in the bowels of the council sanctum sanctorum, back room chambers, there is a plaque or banner somewhere that states, There is no known life above Main Street and Minaret, referring of course to The Village. I cannot recall, except for a few mea culpa calls, when I saw a councilperson there last. I am there most every day for one reason or another and they are distinct in their absence.

The single most important thing that you must be aware of as a councilman is our safety. In the case of a true emergency in our town, you might just discover that the Mayor, the Town Manager, and the Chief of Police are out of town. It has happened before and it will happen again. That is life and you pick up the phone with shaking hands to determine if Mammoth Lakes is running on autopilot, or not, and that possibly the next hand to grab the tiller will be yours. Lets assume that you get lucky and one of your peers is already two hours ahead of you and already making decisions and issuing instructions and orders to the proper people. Good for him or her and good for you for getting involved, for that is what you signed up to do! I would rather have a bus driver and an alternate bus driver, than no bus driver at all. Ive seen the latter. IN AN EMERGENCY, THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN A DECISIVE LEADER AND A POLITICIAN IS MEASURED IN INCREMENTS OF TIME. Time saved if you are the former and time dithered away, never to be regained, if you are the latter. Time is precious when lives and the well being of our town are at stake. We, the citizens of this town, are going to want to know what side of the coin your face is minted on regarding the above, and we do not want to find out the hard way. If you are truly not up to what I have just described, then I would suggest to you not to quit your day job.

So time has passed and you have proven to be just what we were looking for. It never ceases to amaze me how and where a stamp of accreditation for town leadership can come from. More than likely, it comes from conversations in all of the standard meeting places that we frequent such as coffee shops, the market, or hiking, fishing and skiing. Believe me, those are the places where comments made are the ones that count.

Your reputation has been earned. You are a leader. You have gained our respect! So finally, I can guarantee you at the very least three things are about to happen.

1. The bulls eye that was painted on you back from day one as a town councilman will diminish in size. You have held sway with your peers and things are getting done.

2. As is human nature, now that you have become successful in the eyes of many, you are about to experience a cadre of the town citizenry, in small groups at first, and even one by one by one, falling in line beside you, recognizing you, encouraging you and supporting you. Those three words are catnip to a true leader at any level, as they bolster your resolve, and enhance your self-confidence to carry on.

3. I absolutely guarantee that you, whoever you are, are about to experience a reversal of roles. No doubt you have been mentored and encouraged throughout your lifetime by family and friends, members of the business community, your church groups and, if you were fortunate enough to do so, in an arena where you provided service to your country. Having said that, now you are going to find yourself being approached by people who want your advice and council. They want to be mentored by you and make no bones about it. Nothing begets success like success. One thing is certain, as it is also part of the unwritten code of leadership, you must respond to these people. You absolutely must. It is your turn to pay back and offer your experience and counsel to any and all that seek it. These are undoubtedly the next generation of leaders in our community and possibly of our country. There is nothing more fulfilling and at the same time humbling than to know that the good people of this community have realized that your actions have spoken louder than your words, and that your word is your bond. Most importantly, this community at large knows, as do you, that you have served with honor. Nothing that I have written about leadership today amounts to a hill of beans if honor is absent. I submit to you all, what could be better than that?

The very last thing that I care to say today is something that bears repeating. To you, the successful leader of this town, whoever you are, you are going to find the overwhelming majority of rational people in this town, people with aspirations for a better tomorrow, are going to join with you. They are going to support you any way that they can. They are going to offer their encouragement on all issues through good and bad times. With gratitude and with all humility, as a citizen of one, I will be one of them. Whoever you are, I give you my word.

Don McPherson
Mammoth Lakes

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