Sunday, March 23, 2008


This commentary was published in The Fargo Forum on March 30, 2008.

I see in Barack Obama the potential and possibility of transformative leadership. When I listen to Barack Obama speak, I feel hopeful. Maybe we can renew our nation. Perhaps we can recommit ourselves to the noble values and grand purpose of America. He reminds me of the best energy of the 60’s.

The Reverend Jeremiah Wright’s words upset me as they did so many others, but for reasons different than some. A mature person can separate the truth from hyperbole and can place words in local and historical context. While stunned by Wright’s vehemence, I did not judge him or Obama. We have free speech in this country, and I do not practice guilt by association—not for Obama, McCain, or Clinton. I formed my opinion of Obama by studying the man, his life, and his actions and by what I see in him with my own eyes.

I did, however, wonder if Wright’s anger and extreme words would destroy Obama’s bid for the presidency. Could Obama—still unknown to many—withstand the stereotyping that was sure to follow? Could he withstand the mindless projection of white fears of black men unto him?

I watched his speech on :"Race and Politics" (March 18, 2008) with concern.

What would Obama do? Would he be defensive? Would he blame others? Would he demonize and scapegoat Reverend Wright? Would he rebuke the media?

I held my breath as he spoke. I watched carefully. I saw something new and different. This man was real. He spoke from his heart. He told the truth and revealed himself to us. He respected us and talked to us as adults. He was responsible. He taught us.

He put the immediate political predicament into a larger, more encompassing and enduring context. He asked us to choose to be responsible and to engage in a deeper conversation. He called on us to be a better people: more aware, more understanding, more compassionate. I marveled at his insight, empathy, and authenticity. His stature grew before me; he dwarfed other candidates—past and present--in his spiritual essence.

This was a speech more important than a presidential campaign. The speech rose far above politics and how white working class men would react to the message as so many myopic pundits wondered. They assumed that the white working man is too dumb or too racist to understand what Obama called for. Are they?

Obama asked us to see the dark side of fear, anger, and race in American life, to surface the dark shadows, talk about them, and from the conversation forge a new vision for relationships in our lives. From new relationships we can join together to solve the problems our nation faces that have so far been unsolvable. This was a speech about healing and evolving to a higher level of humanity--Obama called us to greater maturity.

As I listened to him speak, I relaxed. I was not wrong. Obama is for real—a good person and a true visionary leader. My question shifted from “Is he up to the challenge” to “Are we up to the challenge he gave us?”

Not all responded favorably to Obama’s speech—mostly those on the far right of American politics. As you listen to them, consider these questions: Why are they so angry? What do they fear? Why are their hearts so closed? Do they benefit from hatred, racism, and division? Do they apply the same standards to themselves and their candidates that they apply to Obama? Think about their assertions and ponder their motivations.

Ignorance is a choice. We need to think, think, think, about Obama’s message, how it applies to each of us, and ask what we can do to contribute to the conversation. What efforts can we make today in our own lives?

Obama’s success in the presidential campaign will depend not on him, but on us. Are we ready to seize the moment and the opportunity of Barack Obama? Can we grow along with him as he calls upon our higher needs? Do we really want the change we say we do? Are we ready for more challenges to evolve ourselves sure to come from this transformational leader? Or will fear paralyze us and foreshadow more of the same politics? How sad it would be for us to miss this opportunity for leadership in America.

Barack Obama is ready to be our president. Are we ready for a president as gifted as he?

Wednesday, March 19, 2008



An editorial in the March 30, 2008 Fargo Forum properly castigated students at the University of North Dakota and North Dakota State University for offensive behavior towards Native Americans and African Americans. The same day, E. Allan Branstiter wrote a thoughtful commentary about the hate and bigotry common in our fragmented society. In a year when the first woman, African American, or man over the age of 70 will be our next president, it is appropriate to reflect upon the value of diversity in our lives.

I grew up as a man in white America. I had an unconscious assumption that everyone experienced life and saw the world as I did. I learned that we often demonize and dehumanize people different from us, because it is easier to mistreat those we fear if we first see them as objects.

Bettye Granger taught me that there are many worlds—not just mine—and all are worthy of respect. She led me to reflect on my childhood assumptions about others through adult eyes. I realized that each of us has a unique history, experience life in a singular way, and can learn important lessons from those different from us.

I met Bettye when I became the manager of the department she worked in. I held meetings with employees and got to know her. Bettye was a stately black woman with a loud voice and a great sense of humor. She was down to earth and asked tough questions. She was not intimidated by me. I liked her.

One day I invited Bettye to lunch. I told her about a problem I had with plans for a vacation. She listened thoughtfully and then told me how she raised four children without a father. She described how she tried to protect her children from gang influence and how she raised them to value work, education, and concern for others.

I felt about two inches tall as I listened. How could I work so close to someone and have no idea what her life was like? How could I assume that she experienced life like I did? How could I be so oblivious to the challenges my coworkers faced?

Months later, at Christmas, Bettye and I shared lunch again. She told me that she and her children had a monthly roundtable where they discussed issues and made decisions. The discussion that month had been whether to use their available money to either get their car fixed or to buy Christmas presents. The younger kids wanted gifts. The older kids realized the importance of a car in the wintertime and reminded the younger ones of the difficulties of riding the bus in cold weather. The consensus was to get the car fixed. I felt humbled by the dignity of her life.

Bettye taught me that the barriers of age, race, rank, gender, politics, and religion can be overcome, and we can experience the humanity of others if we are willing to listen, understand, and learn from one another.

I sat about one hundred and fifty feet from Bettye. The CEO of our company sat about one hundred and fifty feet above me. I wondered if his world was as far away from mine as mine was from Bettye’s. I wondered if he was as unaware of the differences between his life and mine as I was of Bettye’s and mine.

Bettye taught me that the antidote to seeing others as objects is to spend time getting to know them as people. It is difficult to be insensitive and hateful towards those we know as fellow human beings.

Tom Heuerman, Ph.D. is an organizational consultant, former Secret Service agent, and newspaper executive. He lives in Moorhead, MN

Tuesday, March 11, 2008


This commentary appeared in The Fargo Forum on Sunday, March 16, 2008

I‘ve been a student, teacher, and practitioner of leadership and organizational change all of my adult life. I’ve followed the drama at WSI (Workforce Safety & Insurance) for the past 15 months.

Last fall Governor Hoeven recommended that independent consultants determine what changes should be made at WSI. He said their recommendations should then be implemented.

Two consulting groups were hired: one to audit the WSI claims process (Marsh USA, Inc.) and the other to review WSI leadership, structure, and governance (Conolly & Associates).

The consultant reports are in. They are excellent. The recommendations should be followed. The media and citizens of North Dakota should hold leaders accountable for implementing them as Governor Hoeven directed.

Did the consultants find that WSI was “burn (ing) to the ground” as a Bismarck Tribune editorial asserted? Did they find a “dirty little secret” and a management conspiracy to hide improper claims practices from the Board as alleged by Kay Grinsteinner, internal audit manager at WSI?

Consultant Neal Conolly on Bismarck’s KX television: "WSI is really doing an excellent job. It was almost puzzling to come in here and after hearing everything that we heard to see an organization that I would stack up with any organization that does this kind of work in the United States.”

From Conolly’s report: “WSI is possessed of well trained and well meaning staff and managers who, in the vast majority of cases, serve well the work force of North Dakota.”

And, “The vast majority of WSI program staff are well trained, understand their jobs and responsibilities, perform as team players, and are lead by a strong group of mid level supervisors and managers. WSI is not in danger of collapse….”

What can we learn from the consultant reports?

1. The evidence in the reports is overwhelming that former CEO Sandy Blunt, his staff, and employees at WSI served their clients well. Business results were impressive. The consultant’s recommendations are non-spectacular and commonplace.
2. Blunt’s mistakes were in the leadership of organizational change. He made at least one terrible hiring decision of a senior executive. Methods used to change leadership positions and redesign areas of WSI were ignorant, manipulative, and hurt and alienated many people. The objectives were fine; the methods abusive. Those mistakes are, sadly, common; few leaders know how to lead change effectively. Blunt needed an experienced consultant.
3. Leaders need a healthy ruthlessness. Blunt should have fired executives he did not want on his team. Giving them lower-level jobs at WSI was a sure route to passive-aggressive sabotage. When members of his staff proved to be incompetent and others set out to undermine him, he should have dismissed them immediately. That did not happen and Blunt’s leadership errors foreshadowed the distrust, resistance, and subversion that followed. Blunt was doomed.
4. A shadow management culture evolved and enlisted the aid of the Burleigh County State’s Attorney’s office that brought frivolous criminal charges against Blunt (thrown out of court) and executed a Gestapo-like search warrant at WSI. Were personal and political ambitions behind such skullduggery? Citizens of North Dakota should ask the Disciplinary Board of the Supreme Court to investigate the conduct of the Burleigh County Attorney.
5. The shadow management also enlisted the media and politicians to their cause. Many were eager to join the trashing of Blunt and WSI without investigation or facts. No leader can survive such attacks—even when false. How ironic that an independent board was established in 1997 to ensure WSI’s “freedom from political influence.” I recall the undermining that led to the resignation of Robert Potts, former chancellor of the North Dakota University System. Neither he nor Blunt deserved the treatment they received. Is North Dakota government and media too cliquish—North Dakota too provincial--for outsiders to ever be accepted?
6. The Conolly report is scathing in its condemnation of the behavior of internal auditor Kay Grinsteinner and says her actions have, “divested her of the kind of perceived trustworthiness, objectivity, and organizational stature necessary to perform effectively within the organization.” She and her co-conspirators must be fired immediately. The shadow management that undermined so many at WSI must go.
7. WSI must hire an outstanding leader as CEO. This leader should be hired first for character, next for leadership talents, and finally for the appropriate skills and knowledge. Seek a leader who is a proven change agent for there is more change ahead for WSI.

It is always all about leadership.

POSTSCRIPT: Kay Grinsteinner, Billi Peltz, human resources director, and Jim Long, chief of support services were fired on March 12, 2008. See my previous commentaries on the events at WSI. I believe that most of those at WSI who claimed whistleblower protection did not deserve that protection; they were part of the shadow management at WSI. I hate bad leadership; I despise good people being sabotaged by political game-players even more.

Thursday, March 06, 2008


Barack Obama stands for a new kind of politics that build up our nation instead of tearing one another down. But recently Hillary Clinton has gone negative: ads, mailers, robo-calls, personal attacks and she revels in it: "I've just gotten started."

How to fight back?

If Obama does nothing, he will be perceived as weak and that will then translate to how he would lead and protect our nation. Doing nothing is a sure path to defeat.

If Obama goes negative, he plays her game and she will be better at it.

If you roll in the dirt with pigs you get dirty and the pigs win because they like the dirt.

Is there a third way?

Yes, Obama can tell the truth, describe for the world what Clinton is doing, why she is doing it (fear, desparation, and unchecked ambition), announce to her that the world is watching, and call on her to rise above the politics of the past. Put a light on her dark side and illuminate it for all to see. He can call on her to engage in a great debate about the future of the United States of America.

He can also ask her questions and call for transparency: "Why won't you release your tax returns?" "Why won't you release the doners to Bill Clinton's library?" "Why won't you release your White House papers?" "Who has contributed to your campaign?" What specific foreign policy experience do you have that makes you qualified to be president?" "What promises did you make to voters in New York and what results did you produce for them?"

Hold her accountable.

Be real, be authentic, call us again to our better selves.

I can hear the speech now.