Charting a New Course … Again

Communities are often like businesses in that they can go years – even generations – with many of the same people in leadership roles. In others, the door at the top can be revolving all the time.

Neither is an ideal scenario. Businesses, like communities, can grow stale and lethargic with the same people for years callings the shots. At the other end, operations that endure frequent leadership change can lose focus and direction and their ability to accomplish long-range objectives.

The Grand Traverse region faces some important leadership decisions right now, and in the months and years ahead. Traverse City Area Public Schools – the region’s largest public school district- just completed its search for a new leader, the second such hire in the past five years. The City of Traverse City is also launching a city manager search for the second time in two years – the third time in just over six.

These are crucial calls for our region. Both positions need a steady, committed hand going forward given their instability in recent years. But they also need fresh ideas and a willingness to reach out and connect with the community, specifically members of the business sector who have so much knowledge and experience to offer but aren’t called on enough to help.

Our community is fortunate to have knowledgeable and dedicated individuals serving across all levels of elected office. But that does not by itself guarantee the success of our public institutions. Many of our public entities – the City is a good example – are set up to function through strong administration. Without it – regardless of the efforts or hard work of the oversight board – our public institutions will struggle and the community will pay a price over the long term.

That makes it paramount to put these personnel decisions at the top of the community’s priority list – nothing is more important. Given the region’s impressive ascent on the state, regional and national stage over the past decade-plus, it should be able to attract some of the best and brightest talent out there. We shouldn’t be afraid to cast a wide net, and shouldn’t pinch pennies on salaries and other details if it means settling for a good prospect over a great one.

And that only starts the process of a good hire. New administrators need clear, attainable goals, and the freedom to find the best way to accomplish them. They also deserve honest and timely assessments on their performance, well before issues reach a breaking point leaving no chance of resolve. Good intentions aside, we’ve increasingly seen the lines blurred between board oversight and public management, to the point where administrators, boards and especially the public seem unclear on who’s supposed to do what. Strong managers given clearly defined expectations can right that ship as well.

The community can help too. It can maintain realistic expectations for these administrative leaders by acknowledging that sometimes mistakes are made and things don’t always go as planned. When criticism goes overboard on issues such as the city’s ill-designed splash pad at Clinch Park, it undermines the public’s confidence in our region and raises questions about the wherewithal to tackle other projects. Creating a firestorm over every misstep or poor decision increases the likelihood that others will be ignored or papered over instead of being dealt with. The “under siege” mentality stifles creativity and breeds excessive caution and inaction – creating a “get through the day” approach that over the long haul stagnates and handcuffs the region.

Over the next handful of years there are several other community institutions where crucial leadership roles will have to be filled, decisions that will be just an important as the ones now before us. They won’t be easy, requiring the optimum blend of experience and new ideas with the right mix of oversight and autonomy.

It can’t be overstated how important these decisions will be to the future of our region. Everyone needs to help get it right.

Doug Luciani is the President and CEO of the Traverse City Area Chamber of Commerce. Contact him at