Wade on Birmingham

The Future of Birmingham: Strong leadership

Larry Langford

Photo: Chris Denbow (CC)

Birmingham mayor Larry Langford once led a prayer rally to
fight crime, dressed in a sackcloth. The city’s prayers for
strong leadership have apparently gone unanswered.

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Leadership is tough.

The Future of BirminghamA leader can do everything right and still fall off a cliff, taking everyone with him. I’ve dropped off that perch time and again, both as leader and follower.

The absence of strong leadership has left Birmingham listless, mired in potential and indecision. Few are willing to risk their own necks for the good of the city and the region.

Ironically, the influence of strong leadership has also damaged Birmingham. In politics, Larry Langford bullied his way through half-baked ideas and get-rich schemes as president of the Jefferson County Commission and mayor of Fairfield and Birmingham. In business, Richard Scrushy built national powerhouse HealthSouth and then let his greed nearly destroy the company.

Perhaps we shy away from such alpha types because we’ve been burned again and again. Perhaps we feel stuck with the limited choices before us.

The progress Birmingham has made has been in spite of, not because of, its leadership. We’ve made baby steps, but when compared to other Southern cities of similar size, we’re falling behind.

That lack of progress stems, in part, from Birmingham’s conservative nature. Not in the sense of big-blue-dot-in-a-red-state politics, but in the taking-chances-on-even-middle-of-the-road-ideas-is-scary sense. A determined leader would have at least a couple of options, either sell everyone on the idea or barrel through regardless of buy-in.

I’ve done both. I understand that great reward is almost always worth the tiny risk, though the perception may be that the risk is enormous and the reward is negligible. The real equation for me is that the fear of regret is much bigger than the fear of failure.

The leadership vacuum isn’t merely holding Birmingham back, but actively demolishing it from within. One of the city’s crown jewels, the University of Alabama at Birmingham, is in the middle of a crisis.

President Ray Watts has transformed from harmless nobody into Public Enemy No. 1. The governing bodies for the faculty, the undergrads and the grad students have voted no confidence in him. And yet, he still stands, a tolerable mess, it appears.

We not only tolerate awful leaders, we promote them. The corporate citizenry has made its priorities clear: As long as their egos and their bank accounts are well served, any lackey will do.

What distresses me most in dealing with Birmingham’s leaders is lack of humility, this overwhelming sense of entitlement to power and money. A little chutzpah is necessary in any accomplished person, but too much poisons the spirit.

An antidote does exist. I first heard about servant leadership from meteorologist James Spann during one of his talks. What stuck with me was not only the concept, but also how he embodies it. James will admit his weaknesses and mistakes, and then apologize for them. He’s trying, and he’s willing to fail.

That is impressive. That, sadly, is all too rare.

The best future for Birmingham is strong leadership. We must insist upon it, though our options are few. We must support it and hold it accountable.

And, at times, we must take it upon ourselves. Tough as it may be, we cannot wait forever.

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Read more essays in our special 10th anniversary series, The Future of Birmingham.

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