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Guest Column

Atlanta’s Non-teachable Moment; no leadership on race

By Guest Columnist JEREMY C. GARLINGTON, an Atlanta-based leadership consultant and publisher of “The Garlington Report.”

Call it the summer of racially tinged brew-ha-has.

The first featured a new president, a cop from Cambridge, Mass and an angry Harvard professor drinking beers in the Rose Garden and presenting an iconic image of a “teachable moment.”
After a sip or two, all seemed well again.

The local installment, which to date represents a “non-teachable moment,” is an incendiary memo that threatens to blow the cover off of Atlanta’s mayoral race.

It’s difficult to see how even a 12-pack of Bud Light could put this issue to bed anytime soon, especially with a pack of petty politicians exploiting it in the name of self-interest.

What the incendiary memo sponsored by the Black Leadership Forum points to is a glaring issue that needs to be addressed: Stronger moral leadership.

The preferred kind would be what longtime Atlantans remember as the bi-racial coalition first spawned in the days of Mayor William P. Hartsfield and newspaper editor Ralph McGill. Decades earlier, crusading newspaper editor Henry Grady, author of the “New South,” showed similar leadership.

What’s missing right now are credible figures with gravitas who can bat down stuff before it becomes publicly embarrassing.

Metro Atlanta is currently suffering from a dearth of leaders who can bridge differences such as race, sprawl and regional balkanization.

The reasons for this vacuum are numerous: Ineffective succession, a failure to groom and pass the torch to the next generation, decentralized authority and a breakdown in shared values.

Since this long list looks backwards, here are some suggestions that might help the current lot turn the page. Call it “Atlanta’s Long Leadership Lessons (L3),” for lack of a better term.

Let’s face it: The BLF memo’s contents pointed to some widely held beliefs that people hold dear. Otherwise the explosion wouldn’t have been as loud. Why not embrace those beliefs and present a new post-racial vision for what Atlanta should be?

In other words, we can learn something from the crisis and apply it to what people really care about: Optimism, opportunity and openness. Sorry, I digress; those were the main from the now-defunct Brand Atlanta campaign.

I may not have all the answers, but here’s a start:

Drop the political calculus and do what’s right — Especially when the controversy is bigger than little ‘ole YOU! This rule is nearly impossible to convey to a candidate who is only thinking about what tactic will land the big prize. That’s unfortunately reality. What’s unacceptable is always allowing politics to rule decision-making.

Former mayoral heavyweights Maynard Jackson and Andrew Young understood this nuance better than anyone. So did the late Ted Kennedy. Can you imagine if any of these figures had quit speaking out because they were scared it would cost them their office?

Attract new capable hands; embrace growth and diversity. Quick, can anyone name the heads of Newell Rubbermaid, McKesson Corp. and newly relocated NCR?

Better yet, did anyone in the city’s so-called power structure consider inviting these individuals into their so-called camp?

McKesson recently named 45-year-old Patrick Blake to head the company’s Alpharetta-based technology operation. And while Alpharetta isn’t technically Atlanta, thinking bigger here might help finally advance more effective regional solutions that have been bandied about since the 1996 Olympics.

Capitalize on the population influx back into the city to rebuild Atlanta’s brand. It’s now a broken record that no one in the MP3 generation will get. But why can’t Atlanta actually stand for something definitive that will attract residents and newcomers alike?

If Michael Vick can find redemption in Philly, then there’s no reason why Atlanta – whose symbol is a Phoenix – can’t rise again after that awful dance scene up on stage before the 2007 Falcons season.

Restore better relationships with the state. Re-assemble a coalition that can blast through bureaucracy once and for all. This is truly the most audacious lesson of all.

There are so many agencies charged with transportation issues at the state and local levels that it’s easy to lose count. Until more of them band together to break the leadership logjam, Atlanta is doomed to remain exactly where it is now. That means staying stuck in a traffic jam with no viable alternative such as better MARTA, high-speed rail or commuter rail in sight.

Ah yes, the more things change, the more they stay the same. As a modern day Scarlett might say: “Frankly, my dear, that’s a damn shame!”

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