Indispensable Leadership

(Note: The following commentary appears as the President's Message in the Fall 2008 issue of "Impact," the Mackinac Center's newsletter.)

My whip-cracking editor assigned me a President's Message devoted to the history of the Mackinac Center and the legacy of Larry Reed, my predecessor and our new president emeritus. That's a tall order for a short column. It would take big book to say all I want you to know about Larry and the course he charted for us.

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While praising Larry, I'll avoid sounding a funereal tone as if I'm saying goodbye. I'm not, because he's not leaving. Although he is the new president of the New York-based Foundation for Economic Education, he has a special commitment to keep an active hand in the Mackinac Center.

Larry will maintain his residence in Michigan, a new office in our building and a seat on our board. He'll assume a reduced schedule of Mackinac Center writing and speaking in Michigan, which is precisely the way thousands of people reading this column first encountered the Mackinac Center.

As I've written in this space before, I was introduced to Larry 20 years ago as he became the Mackinac Center's first president. Six years later I quit a perfectly good engineering job to join his team. We developed an almost magical partnership to build what became the nation's largest and most effective state-based policy research institute.

No one does that alone, but Larry's contributions were indispensable. Foremost, he assembled a superb staff. It would have been easy to hire people who weren't as good as Larry, but he searched until he found people who were better than him at something, and he hired them. That takes humility.

In our early days he also had to be a pretty good salesman to bring those good employees on board. Our office smelled like the pizza parlor we rented it from, the threadbare carpet felt like the concrete it hardly covered, the shelves sagged under the weight of files we didn't have room to properly store, the '60s-era desks looked like they came from the surplus auction where we found them, the plastic sheets stuck behind the desks were used to cover our computers when it rained and the money in the bank seldom covered the next month's expenses.

Come to think of it, Larry was a really, really good salesman.

Most entrepreneurs are good salesman, but Larry is not your run-of-the-mill entrepreneur. The classic entrepreneur's trap is getting stuck in the startup phase, where the organization is really just an extension of the founder. Such an institution can really grow no larger than the founder. The Mackinac Center transitioned from that stage long ago, and Larry's humility and flexibility were essential reasons why.

Such transitions always have defining moments, and I remember one of ours after I'd been on the job a few months. As our new communications director, I had edited our quarterly privatization journal. Later I caught Larry editing my edits. I explained to Larry that he had hired me to do that, but that if he still wanted to do the editing, I thought they would welcome me back at Dow Chemical. I proposed that he review the journal when it came back from the printer. If he didn't like the results then, he could fire me.

He might have fired me on the spot, but he didn't. Instead he tolerated my audacity, and we ended up with another division of labor that allowed the Center to grow. I remember later when I, ever so painfully, had to relinquish those same duties to the whip-cracking editor I eventually hired to help me. Larry had turned out to be a teacher as well.

Which was no surprise. Larry had been head of the economics department at Northwood University. Professors are not always known for their intense drive and management ability, but Larry proved to be that rare professor who was also an energetic, practical and decisive CEO. More than once Larry would drive halfway across the state, deliver a speech on economic philosophy, visit a supporter, come back to the office with a check, answer dozens of e-mails, resolve a bevy of management mini-crises, grant a half-hour live radio interview, then start and finish a column that was due the next day.

Which is all to say that our board did not replace Larry Reed when it named me president. The board changed the mix of our partnership, and then gave me the greatest gift a board can give to the successor of a brilliant founding president. They made it clear they do not want me to merely steward the Mackinac Center, stand in Larry's shadow and coast on our 20-year track record. Rather, they challenged me to make 2008 our new starting point.

The board knows they hit a home run with Larry as president. But they're not satisfied to rest on that, and I'm glad. As much as we've done, our state is still, quite frankly, a fiscal mess that is getting worse. Yes, we can confidently speculate on how much worse Michigan would be had it not been for the Mackinac Center. But many of our biggest and most promising ideas haven't become policy yet. Now is the time to redouble our efforts.

We will certainly build on our accomplishments, but we'll also find ways to achieve even greater public policy success.

We'll have more to say about those plans in future issues of Impact and at our 20th anniversary gala with John Stossel on Nov. 11. I expect to be telling stories about the Mackinac Center's impact and Larry Reed right on through our 30th, 40th and 50th anniversary galas.