Et Cetera

Leadership MIA at some local schools

June 17, 2014 

When did it become acceptable for public employees to refuse to talk with the public?

Increasingly, it’s more and more difficult when calling a Chapel Hill-Carrboro school to reach a living, breathing human being on the telephone.

The default setting for local schools is to let all telephone calls go to voice mail. If one does have the misfortune eventually to reach receptionists, their officiousness defies description.

And there are many far too many employees of the local school who simply refuse to return a call.

Little difference if the matter is insignificant or important, they won’t return a phone call. (Or answer an email for that matter.)

As someone who has had the opportunity over the years to question presidents, governors and senators, as well as some of the finest coaches and athletes this nation has ever seen, I’ve noticed the difference between the greats and not-so-greats.

Among the habits of the greatest, they pay attention to details. That includes mail and other communications.

They don’t leave it to underlings to deflect contact with the public.

Case in point: Dean Smith. The legendary basketball coach, who when he retired had more NCAA Div. I wins than anyone else, was the busiest man I ever observed. Sitting with him for one hour in his office was a lesson in multi-tasking.

Smith could carry on two conversations simultaneously, one with me and one with his assistant Linda Woods and at the same time answer questions over the phone and occasionally glance at his mail. Today, I’m sure he’d be reading emails on a tablet, too.

Smith also answered every telephone call he received – each one on the day he received it. Sometimes he would call a reporter at home at 11 p.m. if only to say, “Sorry I didn’t get to your question sooner.”

Compare that to local principals or athletic directors who won’t answer queries from the public.

In some cases they simply don’t have the information requested. In some cases they insist they can’t talk about personnel matters (which certainly isn’t true, according to N.C. statutes.)

Those are invalid reasons for refusing to answer a question from a member of the public, even if the answer is “I don’t know,” or “I don’t want to comment.”

Some officials wait for days before calling back, waiting until a deadline has passed before responding “Oh, did you want to speak to me?”

To paraphrase William Gladstone, information delayed is information denied.

No doubt many of these public employees think they are clever and doing a fine job.

They should know you can’t be a leader while hiding under your desk.

ewarnock@newsobserver.com

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