Friday, August 07, 2009


Seven years in Fargo and Moorhead changed me and my life for the better.

In 2000 my mother died, I was divorced after 35 years of marriage, and my best friend got sick suddenly and died a month later. I packed up my jeep and moved to the mountains of Ridgeway, Colorado.

I spent 2001 living in a loft on the side of a mountain where I photographed the seasons, traversed the 4-wheel drive mountain roads, sat in the natural hots springs in nearby Ouray, and consulted with local clients and several back in Minnesota.

In March of 2002 I headed to Fargo.

It didn't take me long to fall in love with my new home: the clean air, the Red Hawks, good customer service, and being able to get anywhere in 10 minutes. A native of Minnesota, the winters here don't bother me. I liked the people: caring, hard working, and self-effacing who raised solid children. I had to get used to their reticence and thinking that is more black and white than my world of grays.

A leadership consultant, I paid attention to local leaders and found some of the best I've seen anywhere: Dave Pinder at Cardinal IG, Wayne Voorhees, formerly with Northern Pipe Products, and Dennis Walaker, mayor of Fargo. More recently, I've been impressed with Michael Redlinger, the young city manager in Moorhead, and Bob Zimmerman, Moorhead City Engineer—the world's most patient man. I was disappointed in the provincial political assassinations of Robert Potts, Chancellor of the N.D. University System and Sandy Blunt, CEO of WSI (Workforce Safety and Insurance)--outsiders who tried to change the status-quo.

I enjoyed writing commentaries that were published in The Forum and bemused by the attacks on my political pieces by those Frank Rich, columnist for the New York Times, called a “Rump backwater minority”—the wing nuts who are destroying the Republican Party. For them the world is flat, gravity unreal, and up is down. F/M has its proportion of crazies.

Eighteen months after I arrived, I was married to Melanie and moved to her home along the Red River in south Moorhead. And I was introduced to the astonishing extended Fuchs family led by mother Pat--the loved and respected family matriarch. A talented and hardworking family they are; they take care of themselves and help one another.

I fought my first flood in 2006. That was nothing compared to 2009 when our family, friends, and coworkers built a 20,000 sandbag dike in three days. With each flood I was profoundly impacted by how hard the people in this region work, how much they care about their homes and communities, and how they help their families and neighbors.

Now we move to Minneapolis where Melanie begins an exciting new job that will utilize her many leadership and managerial talents. I return to my home of about 30 years, two of my three children, and five grandchildren. Two of Melanie’s children will be nearby. We will live within 15 minutes of Melanie's job, and I will walk our dogs around Lake Harriet in south Minneapolis.

I feel a sense of loss also: the Fuchs family, bantering with Gordy and the gang at the VIP where I lunch weekly with my good friend the Reverend Doctor Steve Streed, walking our dogs in River Oaks Point, our neighbors who fought valiantly to save their homes in the flood, and the solid character of the people of the Red River Valley.

With our large extended family, we will be back often for visits. Retirement down the road will bring us back permanently.

Farewell for now Fargo and Moorhead.

Sunday, July 26, 2009


July 27, 2009

Dear Mr. Emanuel:

You are a busy man. I will be brief and to the point. What in the hell are you people doing?

President Obama was elected to transform this country. He was provided a clear majority in the House and the Senate.

Instead of using that power to effect change, you are trying to win over recalcitrant Republicans who slowly erode your power and credibility. They are your enemies vowing to bring down President Obama. Trying to appease them is a huge mistake. You are wasting this rare opportunity to use the power given to you by the American people to bring about real change.

Do not dilute the President’s vision. Please, please, please stop trying to make nice with the backwoods Republicans and craft legislation around energy, economics, education, and health care that satisfies those who elected the President for that purpose; they are the enlightened in our society. At times I think the White House is more interested in meeting the needs of their enemies than of their friends. This cannot succeed.

And take charge now. The President needs to come out of the August recess with a new plan for effecting change—use your power to do good things for America or you will lose it. Results are what matter. Hold onto your vision and use your power to make it real.

Seeking consensus makes cowards of all of us. We need strong leadership. You don’t always have to get buy-in on the front end as nice as it is to have. Sometimes leaders have to go first into the unknown to show the way. You can gain acceptance after the vision is enacted if what you enact works.

Changing the culture in Washington will happen slowly, if ever. Thinking you can win over those whose values are fundamentally different than yours is naïve leadership of change (talk to Jack Welch about leading change). They will feign cooperation on occasion but will always return to the core of who they are. And who Republicans are today is not good for America.

You need some ruthlessness as well as idealism to be a transformative leader.

Sunday, July 19, 2009


This commentary appeared in the Fargo Forum on July 26, 2009.

We live along the Red River in south Moorhead.

We built a 20,000 sandbag dike in March. An Army Corps of Engineers supervisor said it was one of the best he’s seen--thanks to my wife’s extended family, friends, and co-workers past and present. Our dike held: no water came over, through, around, or under it. Ordered to evacuate, we left our home by boat on March 26, 2009. In our absence, we got water and sewer back-up in our basement because of human error and mechanical breakdown.

The easy work was over.

Now we had to deal with the insurance companies.

We paid $3,400 in flood insurance last year.

The flood insurance adjusters came into town from out of state, took their measurements, and disappeared. We couldn’t understand much of what they said and the “experts” we talked to had conflicting opinions—everyone had an opinion—few had accurate answers. I went back to the Recovery Center three times and finally said to the good folks there: “I don’t care if the answer helps us or hurts us, just get us the right answer to our questions.”

We learned that flood insurance—paid by homeowners--is for the protection of bankers--not homeowners--unless your home floats down the river. We couldn’t understand their “proof of loss” document or even how much our settlement would be. Insurance companies must save billions in claims by confusing people who give up in frustration. We weren’t satisfied with the amount flood insurance paid but it was all we were going to get. We accepted the settlement.

I complained to every politician and FEMA person I talked with about the cost of flood insurance. Finally a FEMA liaison with flood insurance told us that we should have been given a grandfathered rate when we were required to buy flood insurance in 2000. We examined our agent's file; it seemed clear that a mistake had been made. Our insurance company said the file wasn't true. We are taking the next step needed to get our rate changed and to get a refund. On this issue, we won’t settle.

My advice to residents of Fargo/Moorhead who are considering flood insurance: educate yourselves so you know what is covered and what is not. Be sure you understand what flood zone you are in and be sure you get the correct rate. You have to become your own expert.

Our homeowner’s insurance adjuster visited and did his inspection and then began giving our name out to local vendors who called to solicit our cleanup business. I complained to the insurance company about this violation of privacy. They apologized and an attorney from the company called to say how sorry he was. They then declined to cover the sewer backup and sump pump failure because it occurred during a flood, which isn't covered. The sewer back-up had nothing to do with the flood; it was the result of human error.

Not happy with our homeowner’s insurance company, we shopped around. Five of the largest companies turned us down because we had a flood this year (even though they don’t insure against floods) and hail damage two years ago. Forty years of paying premiums with few claims doesn’t matter. Insurability depends on the weather.

Dealing with an insurance company is an exercise in cognitive dissonance.

We learned that the unwritten contract between insurance companies and those they insure has changed: it is now, “Pay your premiums on time and in full. Then self-fund your losses so as not to get canceled by the insurance companies.” Insurance companies re-victimize the victims, and they get rich. This is why we disdain insurance companies.

Like the financial and automotive industries, the insurance industry is in dire need of new regulation, visionary leadership, and transformational change.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

We Fought the Flood--Now We Need Leaders

The Small Business Administration adjuster said, “Many places people just abandon their homes when it floods. Then the city comes in and dumps a bunch of dirt in the road.” The FEMA adjuster said, “We’ve brought in bus loads of volunteers to help save homes in other places and those whose homes we are trying to save, sit and watch us do the work. You people up here care and fight.”

While the details of our individual stories vary, the underlying care, courage, and commitment our neighbors and those throughout the area displayed during the recent record flood distinguished our region in ways that transcend geographical boundaries.

My family’s story reflects so many.

We began to build our 20,000 sandbag dike on March 20, 2009. While we suffered 20% flood damage this flood, no water came over, under, around, or through the sandbag ring around our home. When the Army Corps of Engineers took the behemoth down, an Army supervisor said it was one of the best dikes he’d seen. Without a dike of that size and quality, our main floor would have flooded.

As many as 150 people worked 16 hours or more a day for two days and a dozen worked for four days after that to construct this dike, which had to get larger daily due to constantly changing National Weather Service forecasts.

By March 25, 2009, our home was surrounded by water. Yet the crest forecasts continued to raise the crest level. We had no sand. We traveled by boat in and out of our neighborhood. The city built a dike on our access road communicating “we cannot protect you.”

Our home is not safe in a major flood. If a fire, the fire department could not reach us. In a medical emergency, help would have had difficulty getting to us at all, let alone quickly. If a boat motor quit, the strong currents would take us into the main channel and would put us in peril. We are lucky that we did not fall climbing over the slippery dike (due to plastic and snow) to get into the boat in water several feet deep.

To meet the challenge of the daily crest forecast changes, our family members and flood crew climbed over our dike, traveled by boat to the diked access road, walked through snow-filled neighborhood yards to pickup trucks blocks away, traveled throughout Moorhead to find filled bags, loaded the trucks, parked blocks away from our home because of city dikes, pulled a sled filled with sandbags through the snow, pulled the sled over the dike on the access road, loaded the bags into the boat, and boated back to our home. This happened over and over again.

On March 25, 2009 family and friends worked all day, night, and until 2:00AM on March 26, 2009 and had to break the ice forming in the flood waters to get the boat through the water. The situation was dangerous and some advised us to let the house go to the flood. We could not do that and stayed and sandbagged until ordered to evacuate by the police.

Now we clean up, many suffer post traumatic stress but few talk about it, and we feel vulnerable to the Red River like never before. We cannot make these kinds of efforts year after year. Soon fall will be here and a new flood watch will begin. Leaders at all levels on both sides of the river call for cooperation and long-term flood protection. Most have never worked cooperatively for the larger good. The threat of the Red River calls for visionary and servant leadership: leaders who can imagine a safer future and care about the region, not just their city or state. Today’s leaders need to develop new skills or we need to elect new leaders.

Sunday, March 15, 2009


It is flood season in Fargo/Moorhead. The politicians showed up last weekend to lead a pep-fest, get their faces on television, promise money for permanent flood protection (again), and extolled the virtues of our citizens. Who really listens to them?

The National Weather Service, criticized in 1997 for their constantly changing forecasts of the Red’s crest, bombard us with predictions and probabilities: There’s a 50% chance the river will crest at 38 feet, 1 in 3 chances that it will crest higher than the 39.5 feet recorded in 1997, a 90% chance of major flooding in Wahpeton, there might be a snow/rain storm in 10 days (it is March after all), and on and on. A week ago all those predictions and probabilities were different. As they cover their behinds, citizens are confused and unduly upset.

Recently WDAY weatherman John Wheeler said “Tomorrow will be cloudy all day.” The next day was cloudless all day. Last summer Wheeler said at a 5:00PM weather report: “Those of you going to the Red Hawks game will have a dry night.” The downpour began early and didn’t stop all night—his colleagues on other networks are no better at prediction. These folks are good at telling us what happened not what will happen.

The experts have a credibility problem.

One thing I can predict with almost 100% certainty: The Red River will crest in April, and we don’t know today what the crest will be.

Weather is a dynamic system virtually unpredictable with certainty until it happens.

As we enter flood season, the river approaches the extremes of its normal chaos (order without predictability). The combinations of the weather, snow melt, and the river (along with many other variables) make conditions incomprehensibly complex.

We are familiar with the “butterfly effect” meaning a small change at the beginning of a process can have a large impact at the end of that process. In the weather this dynamic is called sensitive dependence on initial conditions.

Many butterfly effects are happening every day in the life of the spring floods. Some we are aware of; others we are blind to. All can impact the eventual outcome, some for good and others for bad. These dynamics are so complex and interconnected that it is beyond the human minds ability to process them. While computers are a tremendous help, they can only model the data people put in. Accurate prediction is impossible, and we can only speak in probabilities that become more accurate as the anticipated dynamics gets closer in time and place.

The weather folks should quit trying to create the illusion that they can get it perfectly right. They know they cannot. People need to understand this and learn to live with uncertainty until the weather happens. The National Weather Service should give their best guess of crest levels daily always pointing out that it is an educated guess. They might give a range of the crest levels that they are 75% certain that the eventual crest will fall within. After a few core measures, more become meaningless.

Fargo Mayor Dennis Walaker has universal credibility. I’d like to see him give a daily news conference at 4:00PM with his thoughts and best predictions. The community can then hear what he has to say at the 5:00PM and 6:00PM newscasts.

We live on the river in south Moorhead. My wife watched neighbors lose their homes in 1997. We are concerned. I trust the judgment of my wife and neighbors who are experienced with floods. Right now many are skeptical of what they are hearing from the experts. We will watch as Mother Nature runs her course and will adapt our plans as the days pass. We will listen to those who have demonstrated their credibility under fire. Our community will come together as it always has.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009


As we continue the world’s transformative change journey, we must understand that the leaders who led us to success in the now exhausted ways of doing things are rarely the people to lead renewal.

Auto industry executives will not lead a transformation to a new energy paradigm. Wall Street money men and entitled bankers will not reform the financial system. Influence-peddling Washington lobbyists will not clean up corruption in our Capitol. If they could provide that leadership, they would have long ago.

President Obama must understand the risk he takes when he chooses Washington veterans for his Cabinet and for leadership roles in his government. Can they see with new eyes?

Traditional Democrats are the “either” to the Republican “or” in the Washington D.C. political game. We don’t need a liberal version of the same old game to be replaced in eight years by the failed conservative model.

We need a new game. President Obama understands this. Can he change the rules for all?

In 2000 Paul H. Ray and Sherry Ruth Anderson wrote a book entitled “The Cultural Creatives”—a group of 50 million Americans who are creating a new culture in America.

Cultural Creatives care about the planet, relationships, and servant leadership. They have an organic, systemic, and holistic worldview. They value authenticity, believe in purpose, and live by strong values. They are idealistic, altruistic, and spiritual—not necessarily religious. They are creative and optimistic problem-solvers; they model new ways to live.

Cultural Creatives, disenchanted with greed, materialism, and status displays, oppose the abuse of rank; inequalities of race, class, and gender; and the narrowness and intolerance of social conservatives and the Religious Right.

They are the leaders for the times. They will provide mature and responsible leadership that will replace what Bob Herbert, columnist in the New York Times, called the “reckless, clownish, shortsighted, and self-absorbed” leadership we have grown weary of.

These new leaders will continue to unite under a shared purpose: to save the world by creating sustainable organizations, a sustainable global economy, and a planet that endures for future generations to enjoy.

The people in this movement created the conditions that allowed Barack Obama to emerge from seemingly nowhere to become our president. He is the externalization of their decades of difficult effort--their reward for the risky and thankless work they have done.

Now our President must free the Cultural Creative leaders within our organizations and institutions across our nation from the shackles of an exhausted worldview so they can lead our collective vision to renew the world.

Time is running out. Our ecological crisis and national decline require an acceleration of natural processes: a conscious and sustainable fast-forward of human social evolution without harming life in the process.

We must think big, move fast, and address all our interconnected problems at once. We must see reality accurately, develop a powerful vision for the future, learn to manage massive change organically, and develop trust in others so self-organization and other natural dynamics of life can burst free from repression and emerge in full creativity.

As we move through this massive reorganization of life no one has a “fail-safe” plan. We live as pioneers who step into the unknown potential of life. We must “plan, do, reflect, and adapt” daily until we find what works.

Creativity is messy and inefficient. Mistakes will be made as we move beyond our knowledge. Not all will be done well. Such is the nature of transformational change. Those who follow can spend the next 100 years making incremental improvements.

We created the world of today that no longer works for us. We can change it.

Tom Heuerman (Heuerman, Ph.D. is a former Secret Service agent, newspaper executive, and organizational consultant. He lives in Moorhead. Email:

Sunday, December 14, 2008


This commentary appeared in The Fargo Forum on Sunday December 14, 2008.

Like many around the region, I follow the painful decline of the Star Tribune newspaper with a sense of disbelief. How could a once dominant newspaper fall so far so fast? Was this collapse inevitable or was it caused by a lack of bold and visionary leadership at the Star Tribune over the past 20 years?

The Star Tribune’s story of decline is not unique. It is the story of many in the newspaper industry, of the auto industry and many other traditional industries, of the national and global economy, and of America’s decline and need for renewal.

This pattern of decline is similar at all levels of scale and is the story of how world views trap us and the story of how people struggle to adapt to discontinuous and chaotic changes in their environments. Ultimately the story is one of human courage, creativity, flexibility, and adaptability as systems large and small—families, communities, organizations, and nations—renew themselves boldly and routinely or stagnate and die.

In 1998 the Star Tribune was sold to the McClatchy Company for $1.2 billion. While the short term value of the company was maximized by Star Tribune executives, I wondered then if the changes needed for the long-term sustainability of the newspaper were neglected.

The Star Tribune remained threatened by demographic changes, technological advances, circulation decline, the potential of the internet, and other unknown variables and systemic dynamics. Rapid decline, long in the making, would soon begin.

Many efforts to reform the Star Tribune were made over the years. New editors redesigned the look and organization of the newspaper, new technology was incorporated, distribution models were changed, and departments reorganized. New executives came and left. The changes gave the illusion of progress but proved to be like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. In the end, all the energy expended simply recreated a lesser version of the newspaper they were trying to change.

On December 26, 2006, the Star Tribune was again sold. The sale price was $530 million plus a future tax benefit of $160 million. The sale price was not a good omen for a newspaper industry with plunging advertising revenues.

Since then I’ve watched as the Star Tribune continues to suffer declines in circulation and advertising revenues. A revolving door of executives downsizes staff and outsources work as the company cannot pay its bills. Morale plunges, behavior regresses (the Star Tribune recently agreed to pay over $300,000 to settle a sexual harassment complaint), and people become bitter, cynical, and disillusioned. Leaders lose all credibility. The Star Tribune is not a good place to work.

The future looks bleak for the Star Tribune. Bankruptcy looms on the horizon.

Forum Communications was rumored to be interested in buying the Star Tribune. Owner William Marcil responded that he had no interest. Marcil is way too smart to get involved with the Star Tribune. He’s impressed me as a very smart man, a natural entrepreneur with an eye for talent and a nose for good properties.

Was this decline at the Star Tribune (and in industries across the nation) inevitable?

Leaders created these messes by the decisions they made and failed to make over many years. Are people helpless to change what they created?

Are leaders and workers not ready to change how they do things? Have they grown too lazy, myopic, cynical, fearful, arrogant, complacent, and too entitled to do the hard work of change?

Are the systems we organized our nation and lives around too big and complicated to transform? Are they unable to adapt to changes in their environments? Should we abandon these systems and begin anew?

How we answer these questions may determine the fate of countless organizations and enterprises and of our nation.

In the end it is all about leadership. And a leader’s first responsibility is to have foresight.