Tuesday, July 16, 2024
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The Long Way Home

This week I’d like to make some observa­tions on the state of leadership.

I’ve been fortunate to be an employee (some say team member, but that title is BS) and an employer and manager with more than one business on my resume. I learned a great deal in those roles, but the employer experience gives me a critical eye for leadership today.

I blame Garrison Keilor for some of the problems employers face. His mythical Min­nesota paradise was the place where, “all the women are strong, all the men are good look­ing, and all the children are above average.” That fictional achievement has caused many employers to pronounce their employees “the best there is.” Above average if you will.

My friend Don told me that even our county board of commissioners here in God’s country proclaim their staffers to be the best there is. Above average I guess.

That is impossible. County staff are like em­ployees everywhere. Some are average, some are better than that, and a number of them reside below. Proper management of any or­ganization is about raising averages, not pro­nouncing all employees “above average.”

Management of any organization is about setting appropriate policies and procedures, making sure employees know and understand them, and dealing promptly with deviations. Another way of saying leadership.

After 50 years in organizations as diverse as an elementary school PTA, several busi­nesses, and even a statewide political party, I can tell you that dealing with the deviations is where most employers struggle.

Helping below average employees improve their performance and find their unique position in an organization is rarely a priority. Terminating the employee that won’t ever be able to perform, or stop disrupting the workplace, is postponed until the organization is near to breaking. One statement I hear from business people when they finally terminate a problem employee is, “I wish I’d have done it sooner.” We all tend to postpone the tough things we have to do. Procrastination. In leadership roles it was the one vice I struggled with most. True leaders avoid procrastination. They recognize the pain of doing the right thing now is better than the long term pain, and loss of sleep, that comes with procrastination. True leaders approach challenges head on. They are skeptical of so called experts. They make tough decisions. Right or wrong, they make them quickly. If it’s wrong, they accept responsibility and change it. Real leaders recognize that employees are unique individuals who need to fill roles that they are truly qualified for. They recognize the poseurs, the resume builders, and the dead-beats and move away from them quickly. Observing organizations of all kinds over the years, a habit I’d like to break someday, it is evident that real leaders are above average, and far too rare.

Steve Fernlund
Steve Fernlund
Typically these “about me” pages include a list of academic achievements (I have none) and positions held (I have had many, but who really cares about those?) So, in the words of the late Admiral James Stockwell, “Who am I? Why am I here?” I’m well into my seventh decade on this blue planet we call home. I’m a pretty successful husband, father, and grandfather, at least in my humble opinion. My progeny may disagree. We have four children and five grandchildren. I spent most of my professional life in the freight business. At the tender age of 40, early retirement beckoned and we moved to Grand Marais. A year after we got here, we bought and operated the Cook County News Herald, a weekly newspaper in Grand Marais. A sharp learning curve for a dumb freight broker to become a newspaper editor and publisher. By 1999 the News Herald was an acquisition target for a rapidly consolidating media market. We sold our businesses and “retired” again, buying a winter retreat in Nevada. In the fall of 2016, we returned to Grand Marais and bought a house from old friends of ours on the ridge overlooking Lake Superior. They were able to move closer to family and their Mexico winter home. And we came home to what we say is our last house. I’m a strong believer in the value of local newspapers--both online and those you can wrap a fish in. I write a weekly column and a couple of feature stories for the Northshore Journal. I’m most interested in writing about the everyday lives of local people and reporting on issues of importance to them.
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