A lapse of leadership

Published 9:00 am Saturday, December 18, 2010

Understanding the multilayered failure of leadership in the case of former Franklin Police Sgt. Ronnie McClenny is easy for one who has committed his share of leadership blunders.

In my career as a leader of organizations and the people in them, I’ve been blessed along the way by the presence of mentors who helped me to see clearly when pride had blinded me — who convinced me to be farsighted when my nature was to be shortsighted. At a few pivotal moments in my professional life, the conversation has gone something like this:

“You are an outstanding person and leader who has accomplished much. You will continue to be successful. I have supported you strongly and will do so in the future. In this case, however, while I understand your feelings, your handling of it is wrong, and you would be wise to make it go away. Don’t let this matter continue to distract you or cause long-range harm to you as a leader or to your organization.”

That’s the conversation City Manager June Fleming should have had with Police Chief Phil Hardison a year ago, when the chief made the petty and ill-fated decision to deny McClenny the mementos that are routinely given to police retirees.

She didn’t, so it’s the conversation Franklin City Council members should have had with Fleming.

They didn’t, so it’s the conversation individual voters should now have with their City Council representatives.

The alternative is to let an out-of-control clash of egos between two people — Hardison and McClenny — continue to distract the city from important priorities at a pivotal time in its history.

The point has been made, accurately, that McClenny — a veteran lawman who served the City of Franklin for a quarter of a century before quitting and publicly ripping Hardison in November 2009 — himself has egged on the controversy with his appearances at City Council meetings and his commentary in this newspaper.

That fact does nothing to absolve Hardison, Fleming and the council of their obligation as leaders to act maturely and make this distraction go away.

McClenny, as a former police officer, is no longer accountable to the taxpayers. Hardison, Fleming and the council remain directly accountable. It is their actions — not McClenny’s — that interest me as a taxpayer.

Regular readers of this column and the editorial space above, to which I occasionally contribute, know that this scribe is a fan of Hardison. I have consistently supported his efforts to make Franklin safer and have commended the job his force has done under difficult circumstances. Two years ago, when he went public with his plea for more manpower to combat drug and gang crime, this newspaper strongly supported him. The council didn’t give him an extra dime. A few months ago, when the council was at first reluctant to accept the strings attached to federal funding for more police officers, we supported the chief again and editorialized for acceptance of the money.

As for Fleming, multiply my admiration for Hardison by five. She is a wonderful person. If I were choosing a Citizen of the Decade in Franklin, Fleming would get my vote. She was a godsend at a time when our community was starved for good management at City Hall. We were blessed again as a city when she agreed to have “interim” removed from her title and extended her tenure. The city will miss her dearly when she retires from civil service for good on June 30.

On the McClenny matter alone, however, Hardison and Fleming failed — and continue to fail — the test of leadership. The repeated assertion — both stated and implied — that their actions were justified by what the citizens “don’t know” is a red herring.

I require no details of the Hardison-McClenny soap opera to recognize an obvious failure of leadership on this matter by the chief and those above him. I have no interest in the technical legal distinctions that have been used to justify poor decisions.

What is legally permissible is very often bad public policy. A very wise and respected judge told the city so a few weeks ago.

To be fair, two City Council members — Mayor Jim Councill and Councilman Don Blythe — have, by all accounts, been statesmanlike in their attempts to resolve the McClenny matter constructively. They need at least two colleagues to join them.

For that to happen at the council’s next meeting would be a significant gesture of peace and goodwill in a community that needs to turn its attention to more productive pursuits in 2011.

STEVE STEWART is publisher of The Tidewater News. His e-mail address is steve.stewart@tidewaternews.com.