The definitions of aristocracy, old-boys-network, and establishment are amorphous. People use those terms all the time without really assigning them meaning. But thanks to The Ledger’s new collection of cool kids, errr, emerging leaders , I’ve now found a definition: “The Ledger sought suggestions from the community and from members of a group of leaders profiled in 1999. After much discussion and debate, more than 60 names were narrowed down to the 20 emerging leaders you see here.”
That’s right: The monopolistic media outlet in Polk County asked the prior batch of cool kids it arbitrarily identified in 1999 to pick the new batch of cool kids it arbitrarily identified on Sunday. They are now the leaders of the future in this county. Whatever that means. Look, I’ll be the first to admit that these lists are mostly harmless and very entertaining. Hey, it’s got me writing again. Well played, Skip. And, as far as it goes, this isn’t a bad list. I know and like a lot of these people. They seem smart and capable.
But I think there’s something perverse about the instinct to knight people as leaders – as if the status is an end unto itself – instead of citing actual acts of leadership where life is lived. I think this instinct contributes to the problems we face in this country today. There’s too much emphasis on being seen as a leader and not enough on actually leading.
Take two examples from this list: Ledger publisher Jerome Ferson and Deric Feacher, Winter Haven’s assistant to the city manager and director of support services.
Ferson, who I’ve only met once, I think, presides over a business in decline within an industry in decline. The influence and success of his organization within Polk County is waning, not emerging. He’s spent most of his tenure laying people off. The product today is much worse than the product a decade ago. It’s not Ferson’s fault, of course. I certainly couldn’t have done better. God Himself couldn’t run a traditional, institutionally-owned newspaper successfully in these cultural, technological, and economic conditions. And believe me, Ferson has virtually no real freedom to experiment radically with The Ledger. He’s a cog in a big hidebound organization that’s focused on saving the New York Times, an organization that considers The Ledger a revenue source. Period. Again, none of this is his fault, nor does it mean he’s a bad guy. But a leader? Really? Competent navigation of bureaucracy does not leadership make. If “publisher of The Ledger” is considered a position of community leadership, then the position itself ought to be named the leader, not the guy carrying out the orders.
Back when I was a reporter, I dealt with Deric Feacher a few times, when he was serving as the Winter Haven city spokesman. I believe I was talking to him about the controversial power plant deal – which fell through – that was set for the same land that CSX will now use for its hub. But honestly, I could be wrong. Stories run together. Anyway, Feacher was always very pleasant, but not very helpful. Of all governments I’ve dealt with, local, state, or otherwise, Winter Haven city government was the most difficult to get public information out of. Always a battle. That’s a product of City Manager David Greene’s dictatorial style. The point? In Winter Haven government, you rise by enforcing and obeying David Greene’s will. You don’t become special assistant to David Greene by showing leadership. You do it by showing followership. Again, there’s nothing inherently wrong with that. Organizations follow visions. And Feacher has a living to make like all of us. But if he ever shows “leadership” that doesn’t rigidly adhere to David Greene’s whims, I promise you he’ll lose the position that apparently makes him a leader.
I guess, in the end, I think we shouldn’t confuse title and position and accident of noble birth or marriage with leadership or accomplishment. And I’d like to challenge these new “leaders” to have the willingness to risk the benefits of their jobs, titles, and social positions to actually do their jobs well, earn their titles, and leverage their social positions for the sake of the broader community.