Putting the ‘lead’ in leadership

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Leadership can help you rise to the top … or sink to the bottom.

Of the many, many lessons there are to be learned from the Flint water crisis, some of the most instructive ones are in leadership. They are provided courtesy of Gov. Rick Snyder and, unfortunately, they are all lessons in how to not lead.

These lessons are the reasons Gov. Snyder was voted “most disappointing leader” in a Fortune magazine poll. Not coincidentally, some are related to communication. What can we learn from him?

Bad news is not your enemy

Back in the 1990s, self-help business authors began to attitude-wash business language. Along with crap books such as Who Moved My Cheese, it was part of an effort to convince people that if they only brought a positive attitude to whatever nightmare they faced, everything would be fine.

The most laughable part of this trend, for me, was seeing how corporations virtually banned the use of the word “problem.” “Don’t call it a ‘problem’,” they said, “call it a ‘challenge’.” (Notwithstanding that the very definition of “problem” is something to be solved.)

From this came corporate slogans that became, in some places, mantras: “Positive Mental Attitude,” “Quality Performance Starts with a Positive Attitude,” “Negativity is for Losers” and, in the Snyder administration’s case “Relentless Positive Action.”

This went hand-in-hand with an older dictum: “Don’t bring me problems. Bring me solutions.” Not only is this dangerous, it creates a culture that has become common in corporate America — in which the prime directive is “Don’t let bad news get to the boss.”

Theoretically, this is to “empower” employees at every level to make decisions and “overcome challenges” — or, as sane people would say it, “solve problems.” It goes hand-in-hand with “accountability” — which, in corporate America, is the buzzword that has replaced “blame.” The idea is to allow employees to make decisions knowing that, even if they make a mistake, management will back them up — helping them learn and grow from the mistake.

In reality, it’s the standard plot of most sitcom episodes — or a tragedy such as Flint. A mistake is made, and everyone along the line bumbles along trying to fix it before word gets to the boss.

In the case of Flint, Gov. Snyder’s staff tried to “handle” the situation and worked hard to keep anything that wasn’t “relentlessy positive” from the boss. They were creative, from asking Flint’s water staff to falsify test results to dismissing or discrediting Flint residents, its mayor, an EPA employee and a U.S. Congressman. All the while, they told the boss — and the public — “don’t worry, everything is fine.”

From the chain of emails, it would appear that the one way they didn’t handle it was the way they should have: as early as possible, let the boss know there’s a problem to be solved.

Many people simply don’t believe that Gov. Snyder could have been kept in the dark as long as he maintains he was. I have spoken to people who know Gov. Snyder’s former chief of staff, Dennis Muchmore, and say he’s not like that. But I’ve seen so much of this phenomenon in corporate America I’m sure it played a role here.

The worst listener in the room

Another disturbing late-20th-century business trend was the creation of the cult of the charismatic CEO. While we can debate his charisma level, Gov. Snyder exemplifies one of the greatest weaknesses of those cult leaders. As Nolan Finley put it in the Detroit News last month, the governor sincerely believes he is the smartest guy in the room — no matter who else is in it.

That’s a dangerous belief.

I’ve been in the room with Gov. Snyder, and at least on one occasion when he was definitely not the smartest guy there. (And, just to be clear, neither was I.) But he talked like he was. And, more importantly, he made the mistake people always make when they think, “Nobody knows more than I do.”

He didn’t listen to the people who actually do.

Confronted with reports of bad water from Flint residents, of problems from Flint’s mayor, of warnings from EPA, General Motors, physicians and water experts, Gov. Snyder didn’t listen to them. Why should he? He was the smartest guy in the room, and his DEQ experts were way smarter than the people of Flint.

Faced, a few years ago, with more than a dozen mayors from all over the state talking about deeply flawed systemic issues in municipal finance in Michigan, he didn’t listen to them, either. Why should he? He’s a CPA, an expert on finance. He and his staff of bureaucrats were way smarter than any of those mayors.

One of the great dying skills of American business — and politics — is listening. There’s an old saying that no salesman ever listened his way out of a sale; I doubt that any politician ever listened her way out of a vote. Yet people who believe they are the smartest people in the room generally do very little listening.

Which means that, generally, no matter how smart they are … they don’t get any smarter.

One of the best pieces of advice I ever got was this: Any time you feel like you’re the smartest guy in the room, you’re in the wrong room. Find out whom you can learn from, start asking questions, and listen.

Hire for competence, not loyalty

One of the great tragedies of democracy is what happens when executives are elected. They appoint their staff. Many of those staff positions are used as rewards for people who helped the executive get elected. The rest? The first priority is usually party affiliation and/or philosophical agreement and the second loyalty. Oh, and if you’re competent, that’s a nice bonus.

Theoretically, it shouldn’t hurt much. Most government executive departments will be filled with career employees who can carry out the nuts-and-bolts work regardless of the competence level of the boss. To some degree, that’s also true in business.

But sometimes it hurts badly, and Gov. Snyder’s choice to head the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality is an excellent example. Dan Wyant, the man who headed the agency charged with safeguarding the public from environmental hazards has a bachelor’s degree in food systems and an MBA in finance.

He had experience heading a state department – agriculture, which would be a little more in line with his training. And then he worked for several years as the president of a foundation that provides second-stage funding to entrepreneurs. He was director of legislative affairs for Gov. John Engler and a marketing manager for Ralston Purina.

So why would a person with zero credentials in environmental science or natural resources, whose most recent experience was economic development, be named to head DEQ? The answer was inadvertently provided by former Snyder chief of staff Dennis Muchmore in a Dec. 29, 2015 email bemoaning Wyant’s resignation. “It will be hard to find a replacement trusted by the business community.”

In interviews upon taking the job, Wyant talked about the DEQ’s role in “economic gardening” – encouraging economic development without tax incentives. Gov. Snyder’s choice of Wyant was based not on competence, but on his loyalty to a bedrock of the administration’s philosophy: Government regulation is a barrier to economic growth.

This led to the culture of “minimum requirements to achieve technical compliance” cited by the Flint Water Advisory Task Force. This was probably exacerbated by the qualifications of the “experts,” as Gov. Snyder has referred to them, on the DEQ staff.

Michigan has licensing requirements for people who operate municipal water systems. There are three categories of licensure – full treatment of water, partial treatment of water and distribution only – with five levels in each category. Each comes with its own continuing education requirements.

Stephen Busch, district supervisor for municipal water systems, is a certified operator, but only for partial treatment and distribution. Mike Prysby, MDEQ’s district engineer for municipal water systems, and Patrick Cook, who signed off on the permits for Flint’s conversion, are both listed as licensed water system operators. But they appear to be “courtesy” licenses. They don’t actually hold certifications, and neither has any recorded CE credits.

By comparison, Mike Glasgow, the Flint operator who protested that Flint wasn’t ready and raised the flag about corrosion control before being shut down by DEQ, holds the highest level of certification for fully treated water. Unfortunately, the “experts” at DEQ thought they knew better.

It’s not hard to instill loyalty in a person who’s highly competent. It’s a lot harder to build competency in a loyal but unprepared person. Yet Gov. Snyder, like many business and government leaders, opted for the latter. With disastrous consequences.

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Who authorized the termination of Flint’s water contract?

OMAThe Flint water crisis is the result of a long chain of decisions and actions, culminating in a colossal failure by a state regulatory agency. But the first decision on the chain, the match that lit the fuse, was the decision by the Detroit Water and Sewer Department to terminate Flint’s contract two years before Flint’s new pipeline would be completed.

The paper trail – or absence thereof – suggests that decision may have been made illegally.

The notice of termination was delivered to Flint on April 17, 2013 – one day after Flint Emergency Manager Ed Kurtz signed the agreement with Karegnondi Water Authority, and a week after Flint’s City Council endorsed that agreement.

That termination is underscored by this resolution by the Detroit water board, adopted on Feb. 12, 2014. Its fourth “whereas:” “on April 16, 2013 the Board provided a one year notice of intent to terminate service under the December 25, 1965 agreement …”

But there is no record of an action by that board to give notice of termination of the contract. All the Detroit Water Board’s meeting minutes, agendas and director’s reports are available online. One would think – and the resolution noted above would confirm – that at a meeting somewhere in Feburary, March or April of 2013, the board discussed and voted upon a termination of Flint’s contact if, indeed, it signed with KWA.

There is no record that any such discussion, or vote, took place. Neither is there, going back well into 2012, any record of discussion or a vote to authorizing the director to terminate the contract.

If the resolution is true – that DWSD’s board took that action – it appears to have happened in violation of the Michigan Open Meetings Act.

Backing Flint into a corner

The media chasing this story have been buzzing the last week over the last-ditch offer DWSD made to Flint in April of 2013 – just weeks before Flint’s Council voted to join KWA and Kurtz signed the agreement. Detroit was offering Flint – and the KWA – a 20-percent reduction in its water rates to lock in a 30-year contract. It even had a nice little chartDWSD KWA Chart (left) showing DWSD’s projections that would save Flint millions of dollars over the KWA’s planned Lake Huron pipeline.

Except, as Genesee County Drain Commissioner Jeff Wright – the driving force behind KWA – told Jim Lynch of the Detroit News, Detroit would not guarantee to lock those rates in for more than one year. Which makes the projections pretty meaningless, given Detroit’s 10-year history of giving Flint an average 6.3-percent rate increase each year.

After a long history with Detroit, Flint may have felt it wise to turn the offer down.

I have said that Detroit – knowing their departing customer would not be able to draw from its new source for at least two to three years – gave them the one-year termination notice for one or both of two reasons. Spite. Or to back Flint into a corner so it could jack up its price for the interim supply.

We don’t know if the first is true; the News’ Lynch was planning to interview DWSD director Sue McCormick. But we know from the record that the second part is.

InterimRateOn April 15, 2014, Detroit made its final offer for interim water to Flint. After 10 years of an average 6.3-percent hike – and less than a year after offering more than a 40-percent reduction – they demanded a 10-percent increase.

And that rate was only for the remainder of Flint’s fiscal year – from the time the previous contract termination took effect, April 17, 2014 (two days!) until June 30, 2014. It doesn’t take much of an imagination to assume another increase would follow for 2014-15.

I get that the scale of the 2013 offer, which included other communities committed to KWA, and the interim supply for Flint makes a big difference in how you set rates. But part of the problem here is that Detroit has a great deal of excess capacity: high supply, low demand. This is one of those areas where the law of supply and demand, apparently, does not apply.

Detroit’s offer was accompanied by the resolution noted above. It’s not hard to read between the lines: “We took care of you for 35 years, and then some. But you cheated on us, so we’re booting you out. You can live here until you move into your new home, but it will cost you.”

When Flint got T-boned

The Detroit decision looms large in the Flint tragedy, but no larger than a number of other decisions that led Flint to draw its water from the river. The fact that this one may have skirted the law puts it in a different light – and, perhaps, a different class. Perhaps that’s why there are people working very hard to make sure DWSD’s role fades into the background. Either way, it doesn’t change where the major part of the accountability for this tragedy lies.

You’re out of milk and go to the store. The checkout clerk is horribly slow, and it takes longer than you’d hoped to get out. Your spouse calls and asks you to stop at the pharmacy.

As you leave the pharmacy, you stop to wait for a pedestrian, an elderly lady who takes what seems like forever to cross. A few blocks later, a work crew has the street closed, and you follow the marked detour.

The detour takes you to a light, which is green. As you pass through, a car blasts through the red light and T-bones you.

Whose fault is the crash?

After all, a number of things happened to put you in that intersection at the exact moment the other driver came through. Is the accident the fault of the work crew? The old lady crossing the street? Your spouse? The slow clerk? Whoever drank the last of the milk?

The decision to draw water from the Flint River – made, according to evidence, by either then-Flint-EM Darnell Earley or then-State-Treasurer Andy Dillon – was a critical one. But so was the decision that led to it – Detroit’s to terminate the contract. So was the decision that led to that – Flint’s to join KWA.

Regardless of the decisions that led to that intersection of water and lead, though, the guy who blew the red light is the DEQ.

It maintained a culture – likely informed by the philosophy of its director and its governor – that “government regulation” is a bad thing, that DEQ should take a minimalist approach to compliance. It issued a permit to begin treating Flint River water that did not specify the right protocols. It arrogantly impressed upon Flint its own mistaken interpretation of the Lead and Copper Rule. It disparaged and discredited anyone who pointed to the increasingly apparent problems.

It’s amazing, in some ways, because the kind of arrogance we’ve seen here is usually practiced by people who are good at what they do. This combination of this level of incompetence with this kind of hubris is unusual – and tragic.

DEQ ran the red light. Detroit merely sent us to the store. But they may not have followed state law in doing so.

The real tragedy in Flint

Disasters

We’ve all read and heard a lot about the water situation in Flint. We’re hearing most of it from Democrats, who are citing this as an example of the evils of Republican leadership and all sorts of other hyperbole.

Rachel Maddow, among others, has (nauseatingly endlessly) blamed it on Michigan’s emergency financial manager law.

So much noise. So much misinformation. So little time.

If you’d like to know what really happened here, read on, but be warned: it’s long. If you’re the TL;DR type (Too Lazy; Don’t Reach), skip to the last subhead. The conclusions won’t make sense to you, but then maybe you don’t want it to.

The Tragedy’s Roots

For more than 50 years, Flint bought its water – treated and ready to serve – from Detroit. In recent years, Detroit has – like most cities with wholesale water customers, like Saginaw – has raised its rates to reflect the rising costs of maintaining aging systems. Detroit, according to Flint (and most of its other wholesale customers) was really jacking prices up.

Keep in mind that all of Saginaw’s wholesale customers say the same thing at every rate increase, and some – Frankenmuth most recently – have, over the years, threatened to build their own systems or find another source.

In order to be able to control its own water destiny, Flint’s city council and its mayor voted to join the Karegnondi water authority. It’s something they’d been talking about – and tried once before – since the 1960s. They finally got enough municipalities behind them to make the deal work. They announced the deal in 2013, with a target of getting water from Lake Huron through the new system sometime in 2016. Council voted 7-1 on the decision, which was later signed off on by the city’s EFM.

The Kiss-Off

The very next day Detroit’s water and sewer board notified Flint that it was exercising its right to terminate Flint’s 50-year-old contract in one year. Two years before their new source would be completed.

Why did Detroit do this? Because they were pissed off and thought, apparently, it would a nice F-U with which to send off their largest water customer.

Flint, realizing it was high and dry, needed to find an interim water source to keep things going until the new system was up. They hired a consulting firm, which looked at several options. One of them was to continue with Detroit, and there were negotiations over interim rates. The only news report of that process simply says “negotiations broke down.” Which tells me that Detroit wasn’t offering enough K-Y for what they were asking Flint to take when it bent over.

The study concluded that the best bet was to draw from the Flint River.

The Flint River, where the water gets drawn from, isn’t terribly “polluted.” As Michigan rivers go, it’s fairly typical. A little industrial pollution, but a ton of silt and agricultural runoff – it’s draining more than 1,300 square miles, most of it farmland. But it’s water that’s very treatable with modern treatment technology. And it’s always been the backup source.

The final decision to use the Flint River as an interim source rather than Detroit appears to have been made by the EFM (at this time, Darnell Earley. He claims the decision was made by the state; former Mayor Walling says it was made by Earley). Earley note at the time that it would save Flint $12 million over the two years of the contract. Not much of a bargain in hindsight, but nobody had foreknowledge of the screw-up and cover-up to come.

So Flint’s water department is asked to start treating its own water – something it hasn’t done regularly in at least 40 years, if ever. The water guys told the mayor and Council and Earley, “sure, we can do that.”

The First Screw-Up

Apparently, they couldn’t. I’m speculating here: They had little or no experience in treating raw water. I don’t know if they read a book, took a seminar or watched a how-to on YouTube, but either way, they started treating the water as if it were being run through a modern distribution system of plastic and copper pipes.

It’s not. It’s running through a 100-plus-year-old system of cast iron mains and lead service lines.

This is common. It’s what nearly every older city in Michigan has. I have a lead service line in my house – probably in every house I’ve lived in, in fact – but have never shown elevated lead levels, nor have my kids.

And that’s because something interesting happens with lead water lines. The inner surface of the lead pipe builds up a layer of lead oxide — the “lead” that makes “lead crystal” as clear and brilliant as it is. While still toxic itself, it is less prone to leaching. It coats the inside of the pipe and prevents elemental lead from leaching into the water.

But only if the pH balance of the water is just right. If it’s not (and I’ll not go into the chemistry involved except to say pH is an indicator of free ions that can create the galvanic activity), metals will start to corrode.

There are well-documented protocols for corrosion control for municipal water systems. They were not followed in this case – from what I can see, because the agency charged with monitoring that activity, the Michigan DEQ, simply didn’t require it.

As soon as they started running that water through the system, the free hydrogen and hydroxyl ions started eating the lead oxide from the lead service lines, and causing the iron mains to rust. That’s why you see so many pictures of brown water from Flint – it’s rust from the iron service. When it leaves the tower, it’s perfectly clear (and perfectly, safely drinkable). It’s just either too acid or too alkaline.

The Cover-Up

Evidence suggests the DEQ did not check to see if a corrosion control program was in place. When people started complaining, the DEQ shrugged. Maybe somebody knew they had screwed up. Maybe nobody did, although the chain of evidence seems to suggest they were just too arrogant to pay attention to anyone who had anything to say about it. This isn’t surprising, coming from an agency whose director has a degree in food science, an MBA in finance and spent the previous few years of his career managing a entrepreneurship incubator. That’s what happens when you give important cabinet-level jobs to people who help you politically … but that’s another story.

DEQ is responsible for overseeing testing of water supplies. And when Flint tested its water, DEQ staff made Flint fudge the results. They threw out samples that had high lead levels.

And, I’m going to guess, told the Governor and his staff, all along, that everything was fine, this was much ado about nothing: “Look, Mr. Governor, Flint’s testing says the water’s fine.” The US EPA, charged with oversight of the whole shooting match, also dropped the ball.

The Recap

  1. Flint’s elected leadership makes what is actually a solid, sound decision that will, in the long run, save the city millions of dollars and give it more control over its destiny – and, because it positions Flint as a wholesale supplier of water, possibly enhance revenues for them.
  2. Detroit Water Board decides to be spoiled and pissy and leaves Flint with no good options for the two years before its pipeline is built.
  3. Flint’s leadership and GOP-appointed EFM make a well-deliberated decision to draw water from the Flint River.
  4. Flint’s water staff – the people in Flint who are the experts on this sort of thing – apparently aren’t up to the task. And the people they count on to oversee and help them …
  5. The Michigan DEQ, is completely asleep at the switch. And once they discover their mistake, they lie about it and ask Flint to help them lie.
  6. US EPA is aware of a problem, but apparently trusted the kids playing in the DEQ sandbox to fix things.

Personally, I think Detroit needs to be held accountable for starting the snowball down the hill. And I think there are people in the DEQ who should be prosecuted for reckless endangerment and fraud.

The Governor? His accountability lies in the creation of the corporate culture that allowed DEQ’s hubris to let it happen.

The Detroit Water Board members, I’m guessing, aren’t Republicans. The Flint water department staff who were in over their heads weren’t Republicans. The DEQ staff is probably a mix.

The Even Larger Tragedy

This is a huge public health disaster. And we Americans like our big, bad disasters in black and white. We want to blame it on one bad guy and reward one good guy. We’re not real good at nuance and chains of events … especially if they clash with our political beliefs.

Every Democrat in the country is calling for Gov. Snyder’s head and blaming it purely on the Republican governor and his emergency financial manager law. And not only are they ignoring the guys in the black hats who actually caused the problem, they’re really ignoring the victims. Worse, they’re using them as a tool to gain a political advantage. And that’s even larger tragedy.

That’s not what Flint’s children need right now. People need to focus on them, and not on their hatred of all things Republican.

Update 1/19/2016

This has been updated to reflect new information. And let me be very clear: I am not paid to be an investigative reporter, and this is not a news outlet. This is strictly my opinion, and it is based on news accounts. Some facts are not known, in large part because of the lack of transparency in the office of a governor who promised to be transparent. And as I learn new facts that contradict information I had in here, I will so note them. 

None of this changes my overall point. There is a big difference between blame and accountability — and which you use will have a lot to say about the results you get in the end. Blame and outrage will help Hillary Clinton in the primaries, and it will help Michael Moore sell his next film. But the people of Flint can’t drink blame, and they can’t bathe their kids in outrage. We know exactly what the problem is. Let’s get the best people to work on fixing it. After that, we can start the floggings. And there are people here who should be flogged.