Who Gets It?

Now that I’m an old city manager, I am occasionally asked to speak on panels relating to local government at universities, conferences, and other assorted places.  My most recent appearance was at a gathering of graduate students at Willamette University, where two retired colleagues and I told stories and offered opinions about our careers.  I have known one of the other speakers for many years, but I was surprised at how different his view of our job is from my own.

My colleague expressed the view that in order to be a successful city manager a person needs to have the desire to be the person in charge or “drive to survive,” as he phrased it.  He pointed out that he was his high school football team’s quarterback, so it was natural for him to become a city manager.  My friend was successful and served as a city manager for one Oregon community for more than 25 years.

My path to city management was somewhat different.  I got interested in the profession in graduate school, where I saw city management as an opportunity to help solve community problems while allowing me to provide for my family.  I do not think I thought much about being solely responsible for the city or even about being the person “in charge.”  I also believe that whatever success I’ve enjoyed as a city manager has had as much to do with the people I’ve worked with as it has with my “drive” or ambition.  I accept the responsibilities of my position without feeling that I am required to be the person who has all the answers. 

The idea that one person has the knowledge or capacity to make a city work well is, in my opinion, as dangerous as the notion that a single political leader or a great industrialist has the skill and understanding to change the course of the national or world economy.  I think effective leaders need to listen to and understand a wide range of views before making decisions about complex subjects.  Managing small Oregon cities may not be rocket science, but it requires some fundamental knowledge and a large dose of humility to make consistently good choices.  We should take our critics seriously, even when we believe they are misguided or wrong. 

A little known Irish economist publicly predicted his country’s economic crisis some years before it happened, but the nation’s large newspapers refused to print his opinions because they believed his thoughts were “alarmist.”  This story repeats itself in Iceland, the U.S., and other countries around the world where people become conditioned to accepting conventional wisdom because the consequences of rejecting it are discomforting.

We can and do, as individuals, make a difference every day.  My colleague was a successful manager because he generally made good decisions and listened to those around him.  I think it would be a mistake, however, to believe that any one of us will always get it right.  Looking beyond ourselves and our own interest groups is a critical leadership skill and the only real answer to the question, “Who gets it?”

That’s the Way It Is

I enjoy a good story, and I really like those that teach a lesson I can understand.  I remember reading Aesop’s Fables as a child, and I can still recall a picture of a fox leaping for a bunch of grapes that were hanging just beyond the highest point he could reach.  The fox trotted away from the grapes muttering, “Those grapes were sour and not as ripe as I thought.”  I can think of a number of times in my life where my initial reaction to my own failure was to make an excuse or look for something to blame.  I also know that I have been guilty of letting events influence my attitude toward life; forgetting that my reason for being here is independent of what happens to me.  The following story illustrates this point nicely:

“A man named Sei Weng owned a beautiful mare which was praised far and wide.  One day this beautiful horse disappeared.  The people of his village offered sympathy to Sei Weng for his great misfortune.  Sei Weng said simply, “That’s the way it is.”

A few days later the lost mare returned, followed by a beautiful wild stallion.  The village congratulated Sei Weng for his good fortune.  He said, “That’s the way it is.”

Some time later, Sei Weng’s only son, while riding the stallion, fell off and broke his leg.  The village people once again expressed their sympathy at Sei Weng’s misfortune.  Sei Weng again said, “That’s the way it is.”

Soon thereafter, war broke out and all the young men of the village except Sei Weng’s lame son were drafted and were killed in battle.  The village people were amazed as Sei Weng’s good luck.  His son was the only young man left alive in the village.  But Sei Weng kept his same attitude:  despite all the turmoil, gains and losses, he gave the same reply, “That’s the way it is.”

(As told by Chin-Ning Chu, in “The Asian Mind Game:  unlocking the hidden agenda of the Asian business culture – a westerner’s survival manual,” New York:  Macmillan Publishing Company, page 182. (1991))

I’m reading a book at the moment that details world economic problems and predicts worse to come.  The book was apparently inspired by a young Wall Street trader who saw opportunity in the housing bubble and made a fortune by betting on economic collapse.  He sees further opportunity in future misery and has advised his mother to buy “guns and gold.”

The young financial whiz is offering a prescription for happiness based on the notion of protecting yourself and your things.  He may or may not be right about what the future will bring, but investing in things that have little or no inherent value is no guarantor of happiness.  Last week’s column was a story about a wealthy man who bought silver bars and hid them in his garage.  He died without telling anyone about his investment, and it was only the kindness of a complete stranger that allowed the wealthy man’s family access to his money.  I wonder who really gained the most from the old man’s decision to buy silver bars and squirrel them away.

I think it’s a good idea to prepare for the future by keeping abreast of what’s happening in the world, avoiding debt, maintaining some savings, protecting your health, and keeping some emergency supplies on hand for your family.  I also think it’s a good idea to separate your happiness from events and recognize that what may happen to you is often beyond your control.  Sometimes the grapes are sour, and that’s the way it is.

Another Story from the Human Sector

The following is a story from the Yakima, Washington, Herald-Republic:

YAKIMA, Wash. — Rob McCune thought the container looked odd when he retrieved it from a drop box at the Terrace Heights Landfill. Little did the hazardous waste technician know how unusual it would turn out to be.

After removing the locking lid, the 50-year-old McCune found himself staring at several small canvas bags, which he opened only to find shiny bars of silver.

McCune said his initial reaction was to freak out.

Somebody had turned in the container, which had a “d-Con” label on the side, believing it held rodent bait.

But there was a clue that something else might be inside: On the lid was a name and address.

That led to the grateful family of the late Robert Lynch, the well-known Yakima auto dealer, World War II veteran and community leader who died in September at age 89.

Rob Lynch, Lynch’s son, said he and his sisters had no idea the silver bars even existed. Their dad never said a word about them. The family theorizes that the elder Lynch invested in the silver in the early 1970s during the oil crisis and a period of high inflation and high unemployment.

“He wanted to have something very liquid but not the dollar,” Lynch said.

The family has asked that the exact amount of silver not be disclosed. But at the current market price of $33 per ounce, the metal represents a substantial sum of money.

Family members had taken the heavy white container, which they found under a work bench, to the landfill as they cleaned out Lynch’s home. The landfill repackages for safe disposal all sorts of unopened paints, oils, solvents and household chemicals.

McCune’s supervisors, including Solid Waste Manager Wendy Mifflin and county Public Services Director Vern Redifer, praised his honesty.

While he does feel good about the outcome, McCune, a six-year county employee, deflects the praise.

“I knew it needed to go back to the Robert Lynch family. That was what I was going to do,” McCune said Tuesday.

Lynch, who became emotional remembering his father during a telephone interview, said he was still overcome and almost speechless about McCune’s good deed.

“The thing you have to know is my dad was known as a straight arrow. I’d like to think it meant honesty no matter the circumstances,” said the orchardist. “He would be really proud of our community and of our civil servants.”

“My father would have been heaping huge praise on this guy,” he added.

McCune, a native of Canada, moved to the United States with his parents and grew up in the Seattle area. He and his wife, a native of Selah, moved to the area several years ago to care for his ailing mother-in-law.

McCune actually discovered the container’s contents last week but kept it a secret, telling only his wife and parents. The name Robert Lynch meant nothing to him and he wasn’t sure how to proceed with the unusual receptacle, so he decided to wait until Mifflin returned from vacation.

Mifflin said McCune walked into the administrative office Tuesday carrying the one-gallon bucket, telling her he needed to show her something.

“My first reaction was it better not be a snake in that bucket,” she said.

Mifflin said it was the strangest thing she had seen in her 25 years in the solid waste business. She immediately notified her supervisors and the younger Lynch’s wife.

“I’m really proud of Rob,” Mifflin said. “He did the right thing.”

I can’t really add much to this story except to say that I think most people would do the right thing.  “Most people,” however, leaves a lot of room for “many people” who would not be so honorable.  I also believe a clear conscience is worth a lot more than a bucket full of silver and it’s good to know other people feel the same way.