Real leaders need to step up to plate

Published 9:58 am Saturday, May 7, 2011

For years our community existed in a snow globe — an idyllic Rockwellian existence that was impervious to and preserved from the harsh economic realities of the outside world.

Never was there any real economic uncertainty; unemployment was rare and short-lived. And there was always plenty of money to go around.

With that money, we funded perks and services on a scale far grander than what is usually available to a smaller, mostly rural community, including a country club, college, YMCA and nine-branch regional library. All are either named for, or were primarily financed by, the keeper of the snow globe.

Ten years ago the first cracks started to appear in the globe with the arrival of International Paper. A decade later, shattered glass lies all around.

The change that has come to Western Tidewater should not be described as a shocking wake-up call because for years we hit the snooze button on the reality that change would come. Nor should it be described, contrary to the epitaphs written by those who leave us for dead, as the demise of this community.

What it means is that the time has come for us to demand the type of leadership we need to navigate these challenging times.

When times are good and easy, the sins of weak leadership and lack of planning are easily overlooked and forgiven. From those whom little is required, little is expected. When the need to make tough decisions is scarce, the politics of popularity take root.

What we need now, more than ever, is leadership capable of looking down the road to see what is coming and prepare accordingly. Sometimes that means getting out of the way of oncoming traffic.

We can no longer afford the type of leadership that, while lying in the road dazed and confused, is capable only of asking if anyone got the license plate number of the truck that just ran us over.

This fall, Southampton County will hold elections to fill all the positions on the Board of Supervisors. Isle of Wight County will fill four out of five seats. We have an opportunity to elect representatives who will not just be reactionary to immediate needs and start thinking strategically about the future.

This November, we have the opportunity to decide what we want to be when we grow up.

But to do so, we must end the politics of popularity. We can no longer afford to fill these positions based on friendship and relationships. We absolutely must vote for, assuming that qualified candidates choose to enter the arena, the most highly skilled individuals we can — our community doesn’t just deserve it, our future demands it.

I’m not interested in voting for someone whose qualifications are limited to being a good person and having a longstanding reputation for being active in the community. I know a lot of nice people who are active in the community, but I want to vote for the ones who can balance a checkbook and create new revenue streams without jacking up my real estate taxes.

The leaders in our business community need to step up and get involved. Our local governments are big businesses. We need to have people at the helm who know how to run one.

When businesses face a budget deficit, there are two sides of the equation that must be examined. Expenses can be cut, but when the cuts negatively impact your ability to provide quality products or services to your customers, or your ability to reach out to find new customers, you’re on the fast track to being finished.

Likewise, if your only solution for revenue shortfalls is to keep raising prices on the existing products and services you offer your customers, it won’t be long before those customers are doing business somewhere else. Creating innovative solutions to revenue shortfalls is a must, even if it means tapping your line of credit when interest rates are at historic lows. I’d rather stay in business paying on a note to the bank than go out of business broke but debt free.

So the snow globe is shattered, and we’ll never put the pieces back together so that things look the way they used to. And that’s OK, so long as we are striving to become an even better version of our old selves. But to do that, we need for the real leaders of this community to get off of the sidelines and get in the game.

The bell has rung. Now let’s see who answers it.

TONY CLARK is the general manager and advertising director at The Tidewater News. He can be reached at