Living in Michigan, it seems like we have been hit with the national economic downturn the hardest and the longest. The once lively, manufacturing hubs of Detroit, Flint, Pontiac and Grand Rapids fell into disarray decades ago; long before “recession” became a national buzz word. While the world’s eyes, ears, TV’s and Blackberrys were tuned in to the downfall of Detroit, Grand Rapids slowly and meticulously staged a comeback.
Grand Rapids Skyline
The Grand Rapids skyline is only a snapshot of the city’s success. There’s the sprawling Grand Valley State University Campus, the new billion dollar medical complex, the Meijer Gardens, the DeVos Convention Center, the Van Andel Institute, and the list continues. The once shady downtown area is now bustling with restaurants, clubs, and fashionable condos. What in the world happened?
Rewind back to the early 1990’s and Grand Rapids was facing the same bleak future as Detroit and Flint. The once thriving furniture and auto-parts companies that fueled the city’s growth for almost 30 decades closed, and the town had no other large employers to turn to. In the face of so many obstacles, it would have been easy to give up on a town so dependent on failing industries, but a group of determined philanthropists did not. They formed a redevelopment group called Grand Action. Through the generous giving of resident philanthropists, the careful research and leadership of Grand Action in partnership with local officials, they revitalized the Grand Rapids downtown area with new tourist attractions.
But perhaps the biggest gift that Grand Action has given to the city is the jobs: no longer is the city dependent on the dwindling manufacturing companies. Yes, the auto parts factories are still empty and of course Grand Rapids is still victim to the rise in unemployment that the nation has undergone. But thanks to the newly donated medical complex and the new GVSU satellite campus, the city has been able to secure its citizens steady and growing employment in health care and education; a formula that has also kept Ann Arbor afloat in these tough economic times.
But the real question is: Will this formula work for Detroit? Can a group of philanthropists turn Detroit around? If it took Grand Rapids two decades of reinvention to get to this stage, how long will it take Detroit?
I’ve learned that one of the great benefits of being a D-SIP intern is that once in a while you are able to sit in on a very interesting meeting or attend a cool event. This past Wednesday I was lucky enough to attend an event on leadership put on by Human Resource Development and co-sponsored by the Center for the Education of Women. The event featured Betsy Myers, a former senior staffer in the Clinton White House and the COO of Obama’s Presidential campaign. She is a compelling speaker, and a strong female leader—and given my political background (I interned on Capitol Hill in DC last summer) I really enjoyed listening to her speak.
Betsy Myers-Campaign COO and Chair of Women for Obama
There were two takeaways from the conference that really resonated with me. First, was Betsy Myers’ idea of authentic leadership. She described how it’s really important for each leader to be true to themselves, and to be comfortable in their own skin. She said that one of her reasons for leaving her job at Harvard to join an upstart Obama campaign that at the time was unlikely to succeed was that she viewed Obama as an authentic leader. At the beginning of his campaign he told his senior staff something to the effect of I am who I am and so be it—and that type of attitude inspired many and helped lead him to victory.
A second takeaway for me was during one of the event panel discussions, Betsy Myers and Dan Mulhern had an interesting exchange. Mulhern is the husband of current Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm, and is himself a lawyer and leadership expert. Mulhern and Myers talked about how these days more and more experts in the field are discussing how important it is to lead more like a woman. Meaning that the old school “command and control” model of leadership is over, leaders need to be more perceptive, open and transparent about their goals and values with their employees, and be open to feedback among other things. Apparently these are traits that are classically attributed to women leaders. However, I think that, especially in my generation, these skills are becoming more and more common between both sexes. In my experience as a student leader at Michigan, I was forced to use these skills many times so I know the importance. I also know that many of my male and female counterparts were the same way. Regardless, I thought this discussion was an interesting to have and kind of shows the transformation that the idea of “leadership” is going through as we speak.
I guess I’m still unclear how this all relates to my role as an intern. In my first week I’ve had to take initiative on tasks, and lead discussions—but I also know that it’s not necessarily my place to “lead” yet because I’m so new to this field and am starting at the bottom. I’m glad I attended the conference, but as the summer moves along I will be interested to see if any of these takeaways will apply to my current position. One thing is for sure, I will definitely listen and observe leadership in action—and try to learn from any tips I can get along the way.