A Lesson in Leadership
by Web Webster
[edited for content and clarity from 2003 interview]
The year that Ragsdale took the summer off as program director , we had a program director who`s name was…Harold Tracy. Yep, we called him “Dick”. Dick Tracy. We thought ourselves really clever that we called him “Dick Tracy.”
Anyways, Harold came up and, God bless him, he was coming into an environment… Ragsdale had been program director from, call it ’78 or ‘80 through ‘86 and Russell Parham had been before him. But the most all any one of us knew was Ragsdale. And Harold comes, Harold is put in the very unenjoyable position of having to be program director… [I]f he heard once, he heard it a million times: “Ernie didn’t do it that way.” We`re used to doing it blank way. At first he came in as a real hard ass, because I`m sure he was trying to tip the balance of power, or at least we perceived he was. Age and time has led me to realize that he was just another guy coming in and running it that way that he saw made the most sense, but you know, if you only ever worked for one person and another person comes in, its just wrong, its wrong on so many different levels.
[T]hat’s right at that transition time, that transition summer, that I was stomping around dictating. Harold was in, and Tom [Willhite] came [down to Stahlman]… And there had been numerous talk backs and things [between Harold and myself] and Tom and I had a couple of chats and it wasn’t going anywhere. Tom, Mr. Willhite, rolls up in that ole big white station wagon and he comes swirling around the cul-de-sac at the Trading Post, rolls down the window.
“Webster, let’s take a ride.”
And you know, no conversation before or since… that started out “hey lets take a ride” or “come walk with me” has ever turned out positive…
Anyway, so Mr. Willhite and I ride and he’s doing, he’s doing the Willhite trash cruise speed, which is about three miles an hour in first gear. And his eyes… Anyone who knows Tom, knew that his face had gotten a lot of sun, and so he squinted and that squint set those blue eyes way back in his head. So he is squinted out through it and he is driving and looking for trash, sort of smoothing off his fingernail corners with his teeth and spitting the little pieces out.
He goes, “You and Harold got a problem.” Not a question, not a, “Oh, what`s wrong?” “You and Harold got a problem.”
I said, “Yes, sir.” Thinking at this point, I’m in staff long enough that I can say “yes, I do.”
He goes, “Harold`s program director. You work for him. You don`t work for Ragsdale; you work for him.”
And we are still driving. At this point we have come up out of critter crawl circle and we are turning up on the road leading to the Cripple Crab. And he`s saying, “You got a decision to make.” You know again, there is that phrase, “You have a decision to make.” “You can either work for Harold or you don’t have to work here anymore. We clear?”
It wasn’t a, there was no part of this discussion that from the beginning that was, “What’s the problem you and Harold have?”…
He goes, stops, he backs up. At this point we are at the top of the hill where the roads splits off. This iswhere you either go to either Stahlman or Murrey/Gaylord Cub World.
He goes, “There`s a cup there in the woods” and there was and I got out and as I`m bending over to pick it up I hear the crackle pop of the tires rolling on. He`s driven me up to the top of the hill and he`s left me. It’s not that long a walk, its no big deal, but it was the underline. It was the period at the end of the sentence.
What I learned from Tom in that particular instance and what has really sort of stuck with me as a leader since, in positions where I have led is and this is good sometimes and bad sometimes, is, I don’t much care why we are having this conversation, you know, in a point of conflict. Why we’re having this conversation is immaterial. The fact is a problem exists and I trust–you know, this is me to whomever I`d being saying this to and me on the receiving end of someone saying this to me–“I trust you’ve got the brains to know how to fix this and I expect you to fix it.” And that is a leadership quality that doesn’t get a whole lot of play anymore…