John Wright of Simple Leadership Strategies in Fort Worth is interviewing individuals in top leadership roles in the area.
He recently shared his interview with Tarrant County Judge Glen Whitley, the county’s chief elected officer, who presides over Commissioners Court.
First elected in 2000, Whitley oversees a diverse county of nearly 2 million residents.
He is known for his long-time emphasis on transportation. And he’s not been afraid to cause controversy, defending local governments’ autonomy and pushing back against state government encroachment on local authority.
Whitley has also been involved in the business world as one of three founding partners of Whitley Penn, one of the area’s top public accounting firms.
Q: Gen. Stanley McCrystal wrote an article for Forbes saying, “There’s a leadership crisis in America, it’s up to us to fix it.” Do you agree and if so, how do we fix it?
I do agree. I think the way to fix it is for folks to stand up and to get out on a limb sometimes.
I think because we’ve gotten to a point where everybody is so demonizing, if you don’t agree, then people who are good leaders oftentimes will just stay back and not get out there because they just don’t want to have to fight the extremes on either side.
A lot of times there is misinformation that is out there.
I think that in the past when you look at how information was disseminated, that it was disseminated primarily in newsprint or by radio or television. With social media, there is no filter whatsoever in the information that goes out and who it goes out to.
There’s no fact check. here’s nothing that prevents any whole stream of misinformation going out.
And so, as a result of that I think people are much more reluctant to get out there and raise questions or ask questions.
A lot of times your best leaders are those people who will be willing to ask the hard questions and not just simply stand back and let things move forward.
What three leadership traits have contributed most to your success?
One I think is listening and trying to make sure you understand what the issues and concerns are. So that would probably be No. 1.
No. 2 is working with people and making sure they understand where you hope to go.
And I think the other is being willing to change or being willing to, as you’re going forward, recognize that you may not have all the answers when you start out. Nor may you even know all of the facts.
You’ve got to be willing to evaluate more information or new information as it comes to you and not just say this is where we’re going and we’re going to get there even if it’s not where we need to get to in order to ultimately solve the problem or whatever particular objective you’re trying to reach.
Do you recall if there was any character trait or skill set that was particularly challenging for you to either overcome or develop in your path to becoming a good leader?
Listening. I think most leaders always know in the beginning what they want to do.
And if as a leader you get that out there and express that, then you’re going to discourage anyone who may have a different view from speaking out, because most people don’t like confrontation.
And so if I get out there and say this is what we’re going to do or this is what I think we need to do, then I have immediately squelched a lot of what could be great ideas that don’t just totally mirror what I said or put out there.
Gallup Chairman and CEO Jim Clifton in a recent book claims that almost one-third of managers at any level are “dangerously lousy.” Do you have any advice for leaders that may have managers working for them that they know are struggling?
I think you need to constantly work with those managers and try to point out their strengths and weaknesses and try to help them hopefully cure some of the weaknesses.
If you could have all Tarrant County business leaders collaborate to improve a county issue, what would that issue be?
Public education, early childhood development. I think if we don’t find a way to ensure the success of our children then we are going to have a very negative effect on our future.
And we’re seeing more and more and more of our children coming from economically disadvantaged families. So we’ve got to help; we’ve got to find a way to help those kids get out of that cycle of poverty.
We’ve got a lot of organizations doing a lot of great things. Are they all on the same page or is there opportunity to improve that collaboration?
I think there’s always an opportunity to improve collaboration. I think there are always areas of severe need. And it’s hard to say that we should give up on one particular area so that we can hopefully succeed in another one.
But I do believe that early childhood development is key to the overall success of a community. And I say this and I’ve said this very often in some speeches or times I’ve had an opportunity to get in front of people.
When my wife and I were first married in ’76 she was a first-grade teacher and they were just starting this concept called kindergarten.
And they were starting it because kids weren’t ready for first grade. They were trying to figure out a way to get these kids ready for school.
Forty years later they’re starting pre-kindergarten and they are starting pre-kindergarten because they’re not ready for kindergarten.
We can’t wait 120 years to figure out that we’ve got to find a way to make sure that kids – children and babies – receive quality child care. And I’m not suggesting that we’re going to start having schools when they’re 1 year old.
We may have child care programs that maybe teach colors. They’re going to do those things that most of us learned from our parents. Some had the luxury of not having both parents work. That’s far less than in today’s environment.
Also, growing up, most of us came from two-parent families. That’s not the case any longer.
It’s going to go back to, as a community, we’ve got to help raise those children and we can’t blame it on the parent. In most instances the woman, the mother, is doing all that she can and that may involve working two jobs.
So, you can’t say you should have gone home at 10 at night, wake up the child and read to him, or taught him his colors. We have to find a way to a way to get children into child care.
And that could be as simple as getting some of our senior centers to adopt a child care facility. I’ve talked to some to see if we can make that happen and asked a child care lady, what is the job? It could be just be a rocker or hugger – or just someone to read to the kids.
Those are the kinds of things we’ve got to do. I believe that’s the most critical area. We can’t give up on those in elementary school, the middle schoolers, or high school or those who’ve graduated. At some point we’ve got to figure out how to break that cycle.
Do you sense that the business community is not as aware of this problem?
The problem is not that everybody’s not aware of it; they don’t know how to do it. But they recognize that we’re not talking about a couple hundred thousand dollars or a million; we’re talking about a lot of money.
In an environment where everybody says we’re overtaxed, then it makes it very difficult to say we ought to spend more.
I started two Februarys ago in Arlington making the statement that we need to spend more money on public education. We were 41st. There‘re only nine other states in this country that put less money in public education than Texas. So it does mean we’re going to spend more.
And when you hear people like Empower Texans say that we are overtaxed and we’ve got skyrocketing property taxes, I think both of those statements are false.
If you take the cost of the services we receive from our local government, that’s what taxes are, we pay for those services with taxes. You take all those taxes we collect, we are 29th on a per-person basis as far as how we rank with the other 49 states.
John Wright, CSL, is president of Simple Leadership Strategies in Fort Worth. www.simpleleadershipstrategies.com