Wednesday, May 14, 2008


This commentary appeared in the Grand Forks Herald on May 14, 2008 and in The Fargo Forum on Sunday May 18, 2008.

Robert Potts and Sandy Blunt came to North Dakota to lead change in dysfunctional and insular organizations—Potts as chancellor of the North Dakota University System (2004-2006) and Blunt as CEO of WSI (Workforce Safety and Insurance, 2004-2008). Both learned that nothing is more difficult or dangerous than to initiate a new order of things.

Trouble began for Potts—by all accounts a good person and a terrific leader--when he stood up to a powerful university president who wanted to do things his way to the detriment of the North Dakota University System as a whole.

When Potts threatened to hold the university president accountable, the battle began and moved underground—to the land of cynical and passive-aggressive political intrigue and manipulation. The university president maneuvered and manipulated with the media, governor, legislature, and members of the Board of Higher Education. Soon all were engaged in a nasty game of sabotage.

Potts refused to go along to get along and asked the board for authority to enforce policies and reporting lines equally across all the institutions in the university system. In other words, he asked for the authority to discipline subordinates who would not accept his leadership. The spineless board refused to support the leader they hired. Potts resigned. Ultimately a local politician replaced Potts and the status quo was restored.

Sandy Blunt was hired to lead WSI—the fourth CEO since 1995 at the troubled agency.

Blunt, an enthusiastic and positive leader, set out to change the culture of the mismanaged WSI. A powerful shadow culture invested in the old order set out to get Blunt because of the change his ideas represented. Blunt wanted to fire those with personal agendas but was discouraged. Soon, with the zeal of partisans and a “kitchen sink” strategy, the media, legislators, state auditors, and even the local prosecutor’s office joined forces against change. Blunt was forced out.
Consultants were hired to sort out the mess.

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.”

The consultant reports were clear. Blunt, his staff and employees at WSI served their clients well. Business results were impressive. A local politician replaced Blunt and the attacks stopped.

Blunt and Potts were victims of provincial and passive/aggressive political gamesmanship colluded with by the media and politicians more interested in their own agendas than in good leadership or excellence in state organizations. Outsiders were not going to change the way things are done in North Dakota.

Both men were sullied and subverted by unethical underlings invested in the status quo. The “leaders” above Potts and Blunt buckled under “shadow managements” and failed to support the leaders they hired.

Why would Potts and Blunt want to transform these organizations?

Most organizations and most leaders are mediocre when actual performance is compared to potential. Almost 75% of American workers are disengaged clockwatchers who cannot wait to go home at night. Nineteen percent work against the leadership of their organizations.

Transformational leaders—those who can imagine a better way--lead sustainable change in organizations that bring about engaged employees with high morale and improved business results in the 25% to 50% range. These leaders engage employees, involve employees in the redesign of jobs and work processes, empower workers to make decisions about the work they do, and are value driven. These leaders believe in “tough love” and in high levels of accountability.

Such change is difficult--conflict and resistance unavoidable--many benefit from the status-quo and few have the courage to bring about something new Seventy to ninety percent of these change efforts fail—many overthrown by the shadow side of organizations that undermines good, smart, and decent leaders whose fearful supporters offer only lukewarm support.

If North Dakota government wants sustainable change in its agencies that brings forth operational excellence, then it must hire transformational leaders and must support those leaders when difficult actions are needed. Otherwise North Dakota must settle for mediocrity. Asking leaders to bring about change without giving them the power to affect change sets them up to fail.

Robert Potts and Sandy Blunt are good men. They did not fail North Dakota; North Dakota failed them.