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County's future leaders face big challenges

February 06, 2011|By SPENCE PERRY

I last wrote a column about 35 years ago. During my summers in college (Harvard) and law school (Duke), I worked at newspapers, including The Atlanta Constitution, The Houston Chronicle and others. It was a great way of life. I fully intended to become a journalist after law school, but Vietnam intervened.

Three years of active duty as a Navy JAG, including a year spent on a McNamara traveling fellowship in Saigon, changed those plans. I returned to practice law first in a large law firm in Boston, and then for almost 30 years as a senior federal attorney

When I began in journalism, change was the big story — desegregation in the South, exploding growth in the West, stagnation already apparent in the North and Midwest.

Great change is upon us now in Washington County in ways many might not suspect. It is this somewhat obscured change I describe in my first column.

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Change in leadership has become a cliche in recent years. New members of Congress, new state legislators, recycled folks moving from one part of the political or business spectrum to another.

This very public and publicized transfer of title and power might cause us to lose sight of a very important, very quiet shift in role that is taking place within Washington County's most important institutions at the senior executive level.

Whether we are talking health care, education or the arts, we are talking new leadership. At Meritus, The Maryland Theatre, Maryland Symphony Orchestra, Washington County Public Schools and more, leadership change is under way. The departing executive directors, presidents and CEOs represent a vast opening in the ranks of local policymakers for many important areas of our life. Add the recent vacancies to vacancies recently filled and vacancies rumored to come and you have almost a complete generational turnover.

Given the shocks our society has been going through, and is likely to continue to experience in the years just ahead, the demands placed on members of this leadership group will be daunting. The opportunities for creative and exciting change might also be great. It is not too extreme to say that the survival of many of our most treasured institutions and community services will depend upon the skill and courage the new leaders bring to their tasks. It is crucial to the quality of life in our town that this new group of leaders be chosen well.

The reason this group of leaders is so important lies in the role it has both in terms of vision and day-to-day operations. The board members of these organizations do not have the time, expertise or the range of contacts needed to keep them abreast of "best practices" and upcoming change. They must rely on the CEO for this information. These leaders also must be constantly aware of day-to-day operations, ensuring they are aware of and their boards are aware of financial status, program operations and effectiveness.

In short, the senior leaders must know their fields and know their businesses. If they fail on either count, the board will fail and the organization will fail. This is the way communities lose cultural institutions, degrade schools and narrow health care options.

The selection process for these jobs runs the gamut from local want ads to national searches. Increasingly, organizations try to frame the candidate hunt in a way that reflects the nature and reach of the organization. In many cases, the process gives organization members, or even the general public, a role, and the wisdom of doing this is becoming increasingly apparent. 

This process must be rigorous and stringent. Board members and particularly search committee members as the board's "eyes and ears" must be attentive and serious, and the public, where given a role, should take an active part. The operating conditions most organizations face today are too perilous to allow for a mistake. The second chance might not come.

Only if these people are well-chosen can we be confident that the stage lights will come on, that our children will be educated as we would like, that a caring hospital room awaits or that our charities reflect our hearts.

Spence Perry is a former Hagerstown resident who remains active in Washington County community affairs. He resides in Fulton County, Pa.

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