Is It Time For a Leadership Tune-up?

SEABROOK SAYS: Many in Gaston County will not like this. It speaks frankly, boldly and directly to all of us. Read and study it anyhow!

Why are we stalling when it comes to progress? Is it time for a leadership tune-up?

At a Gastonia Rotary Club meeting recently, a UNC professor talked about “Big Data” – the relentless electronic collection of information about consumers and their habits (if you shop at Target or Wal-Mart, they already know what you’re going to buy next). Success will follow the companies that use this Big Data to understand shopper habits today so that they can predict them in the future. The other businesses that ignore trends (more than 80% of them) will fail because — as the professor put it — “they spend too much time focused on today at the cost of preparing for tomorrow.”

Is that the problem here in our little slice of North Carolina? Do we have the kind of leadership at the city and county levels that can focus on today and tomorrow, and tie the two together with intelligent decisions that keep us moving forward? This is what we need to ask them: Are they solving real problems in ways that will stand the test of time?

In my 20 years as a Gastonia resident, I’ve seen some wonderful examples of visionary growth including the Gem of Ashley; Holy Angels; the Daniel Stowe Botanical Garden; the US National Whitewater Center; our hospital; the Carolina Thread Trail; the Crowder’s Mountain Ridgeline Trail; and, most recently Artspace and the Loray Mill. But none of these fabulous achievements happened easily or quickly, and sometimes they had to fight their way to fruition. Why? We have the people who possess the creativity, passion and energy for impressive achievements, so why aren’t we doing more and at a faster clip? Why are we so far behind our neighbors in adjoining counties when it comes to creating a hip, lively place to live and work? Why won’t we embrace change?

In a Gaston Gazette article titled “’Religious Freedom act prompts questioning of our image” (April 3, 2015), executive director of the Gaston County Economic Development Commission Donny Hicks had this to say: “Regardless of how you feel (about a social issue),” he said, “when you look at it from a state perspective and think about job creation, you’re going to have to take a progressive approach or eventually there are going to be some repercussions to it.” He’s right: when we are viewed as being so desperately out of synch with modern thinking, it invites mockery and encourages new businesses to look elsewhere. We need to pull ourselves out of the rut in which we’re entrenched. Do our elected officials have the courage to envision a vibrant future and make the hard – possibly unpopular — decisions to get us there?

When I was studying for a master’s degree in leadership, one truth I discovered is that great leaders are rare. Even the very definition of the word “leadership” is a hotly debated topic among academics. But despite its elusive meaning, we all know great leadership when we see it: Winston Churchill; Martin Luther King, Jr.; Eleanor Roosevelt; Rudy Giuliani in the wake of September 11; and now Pope Francis and his courageous stand on climate change. Despite their obvious differences, all these individuals share two core qualities that partly define them as leaders: 1) they put their own interests aside in service of the greater good; and 2) they hold a vision for the future that guides each of their decisions and all of their actions. A third quality is that they inspire followship, even when the ideas they promote are new and potentially fraught.

That’s a little bit of what leadership is. Leadership has nothing to do with position. People often mistakenly identify themselves as leaders because of their title. Just because you are a CEO or a president or an elected official doesn’t mean you know how to lead. Genuine leadership is a skill that comes from a lifetime of working at it, humbly and with purpose, not overnight due to election results or a job promotion.

True leaders know that stasis leads to decay and eventually death. As we struggle to become something other than the butt of others’ jokes, we have to ask 1) do we have the right people leading us forward? 2) do they follow through on important projects? 3) are we willing to summon our own personal leadership and demand that they focus only on the issues relevant to forward-thinking growth and development?

Do we want to be a living city or a museum caught up in the past? We don’t have the advantage of “Big Data” to drive our decisions, but all we need to do is look around at what other towns and counties have done with their limited resources and ask whether we can do a better job with ours. I believe we have the people and the passion to become someplace great, but whether we do or not will come down to leadership, or the lack of it. Before you vote, ask your candidates what they’re willing to do to drive meaningful change and innovation. It’s time to put our elected officials’ feet to the fire and demand creative, collaborative, visionary action focused on what will help us grow. And if they can’t stand the heat, they need to get out of the kitchen to make room for others who can.

Janice Holly Booth is the former CEO of three nationally-based non-profits, including Gastonia’s Girl Scouts of the Pioneer Council, from 1997 to 2009. She holds a master’s degree in Leadership and has written extensively on the topics of developing personal leadership, and how leaders make decisions in the face of fear.

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