Case made for CEOs as urban statesmen at TEDxAtlanta
By Maria Saporta
The nationally-known TEDx has sprouted roots in Atlanta.
On Tuesday, the latest TEDxAtlanta took place at Unboundary in the Northyards business park near Georgia Tech and had a theme of “Re-Solve.” About 1,000 people from 41 countries attended through the Livestream webcast.
Speakers were asked to give the “speech of their life” in about 20 minutes.
One of the speakers was Metro Atlanta Chamber Sam Williams, who spoke about “CEOs as Urban Statesmen.”
After giving a two-minute sweep of Atlanta’s history over150 years (from when Atlanta was “burned to the ground” during the Civil War to the 1895 Cotton States Exposition to the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s and the 1996 Olympics) said there was a pattern of urban statesmen throughout each chapter in the city’s history.
But Williams focused his talk on three case studies. The first was in 1972 with the formation of the Atlanta Action Forum — a group that included a dozen white business leaders with a group of a dozen African American business leaders.
Williams was in the room taking notes as a representative of Research Atlanta — witnessing the group address the issues of school desegregation and the resulting trend of white flight from the city.
The group met with Griffin Bell, who later went on to become U.S. Attorney General, as well as the local school board members and representatives of the local chapter of the NAACP.
Bell urged everyone to “see if you can reach a meeting of the minds.” The local NAACP chapter came on board saying: “Absolutely, we want to solve this problem.” That led to the national NAACP, which did not want such an agreement, suing the local chapter.
Another example of CEOs as urban statesmen occurred a few years ago when Grady Hospital was nearly insolvent and faced possible closure.
Three business leaders — Tom Bell, Pete Correll and Michael Russell — took on the challenge of saving Grady.
“Today, Grady is in the black,” Williams said, saying that “choosing the right leader is crucial.”
The last case Williams discussed was the current challenge that the Atlanta region and the state of Georgia faces over the use of Lake Lanier for drinking water.
A federal judge has ruled that the Atlanta region has until 2012 to come up with an agreement with Alabama and Florida. If not, the region will have to revert back to the amount of water being withdrawn from Lake Lanier in 1972.
Again, Williams credited several business leaders — John Brock, Tim Lowe, Michael Garrett — for trying to resolve the issue. A major step forward was when a water conservation bill passed during this last legislative session.
Williams said “enlightened CEOs are doing it for both profit and public good.”
Then Williams shared his “five principles of urban statesmen:
1. Make sure the issue is at a tipping point and bringing in a leader can make a contribution;
2. Choose a strong leader with tough skin who is respected by people on all sides;
3. Find out the facts by getting the best consultants to study an issue — “everybody is entitled to their own opinion, people are not entitled to their own facts;”
4. Communicate the consequences if action is not taken; and
5. Create a “simple, clear action plan” that can be explained to a 5th grader.
Williams said that the need for urban statesmen will only increase. By 2050, 80 percent of the country’s population will live in urban areas.
The next TEDxAtlanta at Unboundary will be Jan. 25.