The T-shirt is plain and black with a simple logo that reads “Eat Local,” and if you see someone wearing it, the chances are pretty good they work at a locally owned restaurant.
In recent years there has been a “Buy Local” campaign among some business leaders that’s been hard to miss. Less conspicuous but still easy to find is evidence of perhaps a more influential trend – how the city is moving toward what might be called a “Lead Local” preference based on some recent changes in leadership of some of the city’s most important institutions.
The trend is specifically homegrown interim leaders who become the permanent leaders during critical bursts of intense change for those institutions.
The latest evidence is Brad Martin’s interim tenure as president of the University of Memphis, the city’s largest institution of higher education. Mike Rose, the former head of Promus Cos. and a former board chairman of First Horizon National Corp., is among the university backers and supporters who want Martin to become the permanent president of the university.
“I hope he isn’t too committed to the interim title,” Rose said recently in introducing Martin at the Memphis Rotary Club.
The Greater Memphis Chamber is preparing to conduct a search of its own to replace outgoing president John Moore, who’s leaving effective Jan. 3. The chamber’s 2014 board chairman – to be announced this month – and the board’s executive committee will detail the process of choosing Moore’s successor.
How those groups choose to fill their top leadership spots will add fresh examples to a trend that touches on a long-running local debate, one that renews itself when such a position comes open and someone suggests a “national search” to find a replacement.
On one side is the idea that a leader coming from outside Memphis is going to have a learning curve and may not stay long enough to ever really figure out what it takes to succeed here. A few steps further out is the notion that a leader from the outside conveys the idea we cannot control our own destiny or that our leadership doesn’t trust a seat in their club to someone who is a Memphian.
The other side is the idea that Memphis needs new leadership from other places to find its way past long-standing chronic problems and challenges that other cities have met and solved long ago.
Somewhere in the middle is a discussion about the specific position that is open.
And close by is the discussion about the definition of local leadership. Is it someone who is a longtime or native Memphian? Is it someone who recently moved or returned to Memphis for a reason other than the leadership position at stake? How recent is too recent to understand the city?
“It does depend on the circumstance,” said Nancy Coffee, CEO of New Memphis Institute, the leadership development nonprofit. “The circumstance of the organization and then the circumstance of the organization’s own landscape. Occasionally the short-term needs are different from the long-term needs.”
Coffee added that sometimes interim leaders have the “leadership chops” to be excellent long-term leaders as well.
Martin hasn’t commented on the sentiment from Rose and others that he should seek the presidency on a long-term basis. But he has followed a familiar pattern in painting the one-year interim timeframe as a short period of time, one in which intense change can be pushed through more successfully by a leader who isn’t concerned about getting a reappointment or contract renewal than over a much longer period of time.
“Trust me,” he told the Rotarians. “There is a big opportunity for reallocation of the existing resources we have, based upon what we’ve got to get done.”
Martin has also set a goal of raising $40 million in a capital campaign for the development of the university’s Park Avenue campus.
It is exactly that kind of opportunity that prompted Dorsey Hopson to take on the job of first superintendent of the consolidated Shelby County Schools system earlier this year.
“I think that the best thing about not wanting to be superintendent … is the objectivity just to make the decisions based on what I think is right,” Hopson said in March. “I do know school operations and I do know how to maneuver issues associated with schools. We’re all in. I take it seriously.”
The school board voted to hold a national search in 2012 and even hired a search firm, but the search never got off the ground as events in the schools merger away from the choice began to accelerate.
Kriner Cash resigned as superintendent of Memphis City Schools at the start of 2013. John Aitken, his counterpart at Shelby County Schools, followed in March. And in each case, the board chose Hopson, as the interim replacement.
The decisions the school system had to make in a matter of months for the start of the first school year of the merger guaranteed Hopson could not be a caretaker of the job. He had to make recommendations to the school board that were crucial to the merger and would be controversial no matter what his decision was.
But as Hopson cleared his slate of those decisions in short order, he quickly began to realize he was making decisions for future school years. The interim superintendent became the permanent superintendent with a three-year contract – quickly and with little debate by the board.
Martin and Hopson are Memphis natives and graduates of the education institutions they oversee. Neither is an educator. And the careers of each have taken them other places and required that they operate outside their hometown.
“We know that the dividing line between a native Memphian and someone from out of town is fuzzy,” Coffee said of the definition of “local.” “It’s really about the skills and the passion and determination that each individual brings. We do believe it’s very important to have a mix of native and non-native perspectives around the table, particularly when it comes to community leadership.”
But Coffee doesn’t think the learning curve for knowing Memphis well enough to navigate a culture that can be deceptively simply on the surface is as steep as it is in other cities or as some native or long-time Memphians might imagine it is.
“That’s because Memphis is in many ways a small community,” Coffee said. “There is such incredible access to our city’s thought leaders, to our city’s political leaders and to our city’s business leaders. They are really willing to mentor … those who are raising their hands and wanting to get involved.”
The issue of local, or homegrown, and non-local is so important that New Memphis Institute’s Fellows classes of leaders, who are an average of 34 years of age, is a mandatory half-and-half mix of locals with non-locals.
“We believe the two perspectives are so crucial when it comes to community change,” Coffee said.
The question of local and non-local is becoming one of several factors in who emerges to lead at critical junctures around the city.
The Downtown Memphis Commission board of directors in 2010 decided local was best when it came time to fill that agency’s job of president and CEO. An executive search committee actually recommended an outsider – an economic development official from Florida – for the job, but it was Paul Morris, a Memphis attorney whose family has long and deep ties to the city, who got the nod.
Morris’ relationships with Memphis stakeholders and decision makers put him over the top.
Likewise, Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell and Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. in 2011 personally interviewed the top five candidates out of a pool of about 150 people who threw their name into the hat to head up the local Economic Development Growth Engine agency.
Chosen for that job was Reid Dulberger, a veteran economic development official in local circles.
Toward the end of his tenure as Memphis mayor, Willie Herenton, a frequent advocate of national searches throughout his 18 years as mayor for various vacancies at City Hall, said the position of Memphis City Schools superintendent not only required a man but a man who was from Memphis – not an outsider but also not necessarily someone from inside the school system.
Yet, when Herenton left as superintendent in the 1990s he didn’t make any recommendation on a successor from the tier of veteran deputy and assistant superintendents that had served for decades with him. Years later, Herenton said his judgment was, “None of them were number ones.”
As mayor, Herenton advocated national searches for Memphis police director several times but always went with whoever the interim director was.
The Memphis Police Department has been led by an appointed police director from the ranks of the Memphis Police Department since Buddy Chapman left as the last civilian director, one of only two, in the early 1980s. Chapman is a Memphian. His predecessor, Jay Hubbard, the first police director and the only other civilian to hold the post, was not.
Toney Armstrong, who was appointed police director by Wharton, is the youngest police director to come from the ranks.