Guest Column By Karen Ott Mayer

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Karen Ott Mayer

Leader never more important than right now

Like many small towns, Como has moved through a series of transitions over the decades. I’ve heard stories of former thriving businesses like a grocer, theater and gas station. I’ve heard of years when the town faced near extinction.  

When President Obama leveled his now infamous comments during the 2008 campaign year about the dereliction and social decline in small towns, he ignited a firestorm — and rightfully so. While fewer Americans live in small towns, those of us in small towns took exception. Mississippi itself is largely comprised of small towns and communities struggling to find dedicated, inspired leadership and ways to grow.

Now with the untimely death of Mayor Judy Sumner, Como faces another page in its leadership history. In wake of this unexpected vacancy, Como’s residents are challenged by one crucial question:  Who will lead and what kind of leader will it be this time around?

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Richard Moe, the seventh president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation once said, “We can keep on accepting the kind of communities we get, or we can take steps to ensure that we get the kind of communities we want.” Mayor Sumner knew the kind of community she hoped to build and her presence was timely in comparison to the greatest needs of the town. Whoever leads next will take ownership over the tenuous success that Sumner molded and will be expected to grow it.

At the Forbes Global CEO Conference held in Kuala Lumpur this past year, several leaders including Bill Hewlett co-founder of HP and Rob Walton of Wal-Mart held an open panel discussion about leadership. Walton, extremely reserved and quiet, took over his father’s Wal-Mart and grew it into a huge global presence.  He said, “It is the job of leaders to listen to their customers and set the tone for the whole company.” Likewise, empathetic leaders such as Hewlett used to walk around the company and listen to concerns.

Other leaders like Helmet Panke of BMW moved into the top position from a completely different field. He was previously a nuclear physicist but his vision for the company was unrelenting. He vowed to outsell Mercedes (which the company did) and for someone to be able to climb into a BMW with closed eyes — and know it was a BMW.   

The overriding theme that resulted from the conference was that a leadership style must fit the leader and the organization and that timing is everything. In short, the best leaders are also chosen at the right time, for the right challenge. And when that happens, success seems to just follow.

Beyond that, a good leader holds a vision that matches what customers or constituents value and recognizes the inherent assets in a place enough to protect those assets for the greater good.   

If ever a time existed for voices in Como to be heard and ideas to be challenged, it is now, as residents will soon enough find themselves following-the-leader even if they didn’t choose to play the game.

(Editor’s note: Karen Ott Mayer is a freelance publication writer and commercial copywriter who lives and writes from her farm near Como. She also serves on the Board of Directors of the Panola County Community Foundation.)