Category Archives: Leadership

Passing the Buck

As I write this Hurricane Harvey is, finally, leaving Houston and southeast Texas in its wake and heading towards Louisiana. During the several days that the hurricane inundated the Houston area there emerged many stories of heroism, harrowing escapes and increasingly desperate attempts by leaders to cope with a level of flooding never seen in their community’s history. In the midst of all

In the midst of all this the pastor of a very well-known mega-church, Joel Osteen, came under mounting criticism for not opening the doors of his church, a building that was once a coliseum that housed the Houston Rockets, to help the displaced and desperate residents of his city. His church’s initial reaction was to post pictures of their facility showing that it was inaccessible due to flooding, but then some local folks visited it to check it out for themselves and found that the facility was indeed accessible and pretty much dry compared to other parts of the city, and they shared that info (with pictures) on social media and the pressure on Osteen and his church mounted. Eventually, they did open the church as a shelter and to collect donations of clothes and sundry items, which is great, but the fact that the leader of one of the largest congregations in the country took so long to make it happen is a stain that will be hard to wash off.

So how did Osteen proceed to try to wash that stain? He appeared on the Today Show and promptly tried to pass the buck. Here’s a quote from the interview with him: “(The city) didn’t need us as shelter then,” Osteen said. “If we needed to be a shelter, we certainly would’ve been a shelter right when they first asked. Once they filled up, they never dreamed that we’d have this many displaced people, (and) they asked us to become a shelter. I think this notion that somehow we would turn people away or we weren’t here for the city is about as false as can be.”

You can see the interview for your self here.

He went on to say that the church was concerned for people’s safety because the building had flooding issues in the past. That’s all well and good, but here are the problems with his reaction:

  1. What kind of church leader waits to be asked to help?
  2. What kind of leader of any stripe tries to shift blame during a crisis?

To be clear, it’s a good thing that the church has rallied and is contributing, especially given the resources it can bring to bear. I’m pretty certain it would have, eventually, even without the pressure of the criticism from social media. But Osteen himself showed some real deficiencies of character and leadership in how he responded to the crisis itself and the criticism that resulted.

Winston-Salem as a Case Study

Since moving here in 2004 I’ve found Winston-Salem to be a fascinating study in how to revive a city that had been hit by multiple economic tsunamis in recent decades. It seems that others have taken notice, including a writer who penned a piece for the Christian Science Monitor about how a few US cities can teach the country a little something about democracy (h/t to my Mom for sending me the article). You can find the full article here (second story down), but here’s the segment focused on Camel City:

Winston-Salem, N.C., lost 10,000 jobs in 18 months after R.J. Reynolds moved its headquarters to Atlanta and several other homegrown companies failed in the late 1980s. It was the first of several waves of job losses as the city’s manufacturing base collapsed. Civic leaders chipped in to create a $40 million fund to loan start-up capital to entrepreneurs, hire staff for a local development corporation, and fund signature projects. One of them was the renovation of a 1920s Art Deco office tower into downtown apartments.

This activity helped spur Wake Forest University’s medical school to undertake an ambitious project to create a research park in former R.J. Reynolds manufacturing buildings next to downtown. The school has filled 2 million square feet of empty factories with high-tech companies and world-class biomedical researchers. An adjacent African-American church has turned 15 acres in the area into lofts, senior housing, and businesses. Downtown has attracted $1.6 billion in investment since 2002.

Now people gather to sip coffee, attend concerts, or take yoga classes in a new park in the shadow of the looming chimneys of a former Reynolds power plant. The plant itself is being repurposed into a $40 million hub of restaurants, stores, laboratories, and office space. Students, researchers, and entrepreneurs mingle in the halls and atria of all the former factory buildings, creating the kind of synergetic environment the innovation industry now craves.

Our very own Jeff Smith, of Smitty’s Notes, provides the money quote:

“It wasn’t one person or thing that made it all happen; it was everyone from the grass roots to the corporate leaders coming together,” says Jeffrey Smith, who runs Smitty’s Notes, an influential community news site. “We realized it would take all of us to get this hog out of the ditch.”

Much of the foundation for this renewal had been laid by the time I moved here with my family in 2004, but community leaders have continued to do what’s necessary to keep building upon it. For my job I get to spend a significant amount of time in neighboring Greensboro, a city that is slightly larger but quite comparable to Winston-Salem, and it’s been interesting to see how the two cities have proceeded from their respective economic crises. Winston-Salem has a lot of momentum, and it’s redevelopment seems to be benefiting from consistent collaboration among its community leaders, including elected officials as well as corporate and civic leaders. Greensboro, on the other hand, is making progress but it seems to be in more fits and starts; its progress seems to occur in spite of local leaders’ lack of cooperation and collaboration.

Sure, Winston-Salem has its problems and leaders sometimes disagree on how to proceed, but for the most part its leaders have shown how to lead a community out of the ditch and back on the road. Hopefully we keep it going for decades to come.

Do We Really Want To Be the United Whimps of America?

In the aftermath of the terror attacks in Paris we’re seeing some predictable reactions from a segment of our American crowd. They can be boiled down to the following:

  1. If France didn’t have such strong gun control, in other words was more like American, then there’s no way the terrorists could have killed so many people indiscriminately.
  2. If France and the rest of Europe had closed their borders to refugees then the terrorists couldn’t have gotten into the country to do the damage.
  3. We need to immediately stop taking any refugees lest we let in terrorists.

I’m going to tackle these one at a time:

  1. Terrorists who will wear suicide bomb vests, who aren’t afraid to die, won’t be dissuaded by locals with guns. And it’s not like they wear shirts that say “Terrorist!” on them, so the element of surprise is kind of a given. Basically your average gun-wielding citizenry is likely to die quickly or inadvertently kill innocent bystanders in their efforts to fight the terrorists.
  2. Closing the borders might make it more difficult for the terrorists to get in the country, but since these are extremists who spread their ideology like a virus you will never be able to prevent them from recruiting people who are already in the country. In other words these folks are like an airborne virus and closing the borders would be the equivalent of fighting it with band aids.
  3. This is the big one. As a nation we profess to be a safe harbor for the tired, huddled masses. It’s literally inscribed on one of our greatest symbols. Why then, when the time comes to deal with a huge number of desperate people fleeing their homeland as it goes up in flames thanks to a geopolitical catastrophe that we played a large role in creating, do we endeavor to turn them away?

    Using the logic in #1 above, we of all nations should be the most prepared to accept refugees who may be infiltrated by some terrorists. We are absolutely armed to the teeth here, so if anyone is (literally) armed to deal with this crisis it’s us. Why then does our armed citizenry, many of whom are avowed Christians who should be chomping at the bit to help these desperate souls, seem so eager to turn them away? There’s only one answer I can think of and it’s fear, and that’s what boggles my mind. Many of the very same people who insist that profligate gun ownership makes us safer are also screaming that we need to close our borders. If we leave it up to them we will come to be seen as the United States of Whimps and personally I prefer that not to be the case.

    Don’t get me wrong; I don’t think you just open the gates and let everyone in without doing everything you can to screen out potential terrorists or other threats. What I do believe is that as a nation that is supposed to be a world leader we should show true bravery by welcoming those desperate souls, providing them with a shelter in the storm while we lead the world in doing the hard work necessary to annihilate the cancer that is extremism, Islamic and otherwise.

    Leaders don’t shy away from risk, danger and hard work and America now has a choice to make – lead bravely from the front or bolt our doors, turn off the lights, hug our guns and pray that the bogey man outside tries to get in our neighbors’ houses instead of ours.

Where the Buck Stops

A big part of being a good leader is doing the right thing when things don’t go right. Today I’d say the chief of the UNC-Greensboro campus police department is providing a small example of how to react when things go wrong. Here’s the story from my particular point of view:

Last night there was a shooting at an off-campus student apartment community. My son happens to attend UNCG and lives in an off-campus apartment, but not in the community where the shooting occurred. Knowing that his parents might hear about it and might be concerned for his safety he sent me a text saying that a shooting had happened near his apartment, but that it wasn’t in his particular apartment community and that he was fine. We definitely appreciated it, but it also caused me to start monitoring the news about the shooting. As always I turned to Twitter because that tends to be where I get news the earliest, including from the various local news outlets, and sure enough that’s where all the freshest info was coming from.

That’s why I was able to see these Tweets from UNCG:


See that top Tweet that includes a suspect description of “B/M, 6′-6’2″, Red Shirt, Red hat, Goatee and a large bottom lip”? Well that predictably struck many as a racist description and generated the responses you’d expect online. So what did the chief do? Well, among other things he sent a message to the UNCG community which my son received by email and forwarded to me:

To the UNCG Community,

On behalf of the UNCG Police Department, I want to apologize for what many considered a racially insensitive description included in one of the alerts last night. We give our staff a great deal of latitude in crafting emergency messages because safety often depends on timeliness.  Sometimes that means just repeating descriptions provided to us, as we did in this case.  However, we know our community and should be able to filter information in a way that reflects our values but still provides the information you need to stay safe.  One of our core values is Accountability, and, ultimately, I am the head of this agency, and I am accountable for the actions of those who serve you at the Police Department.  For that reason, I apologize to those who were offended. We can do better, and we will.

Jamie Herring
Chief of Police
UNCG Police Department
P.O. Box 26170
Greensboro, NC  27402

I truly can’t tell you anything about the department or the chief outside of this event because I haven’t had cause to pay any attention to them, but I can tell you that this is a very good response to a screw up that happened on his watch. It’s nice to see a leader accept the buck instead of passing it along.