Leadership is something one may not be able to easily define – but something you know when you see it. Leaders are those who recognize when someone is going off in the wrong direction, whether it is a lost cub scout or a wrongheaded congressman, and then take action to save the situation. Leaders are all about action, not just words.
Leaders change things.
As many of my readers know, I’m from rural New York state; Chautauqua County, to be exact, and since I was eight years old I’ve been an avid visitor to Chautauqua Institution, one of the greatest non-profit, non-academic entities in our nation’s history.
Matter of fact, I am sure my parents would have taken me even before that, except that there was gas rationing during World War II. So it wasn’t until 1946 that I got to hear an operatic soprano forget her words, see van Cliburn play a concert on a night near freezing at the end of August (!) and began to learn stories about Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, John Philip Sousa, Eleanor Roosevelt and others who had been regular visitors to Chautauqua. The institution, which was founded in 1874, has been offering nine-week summer sessions for decades.
Change doesn’t come easily to a place like Chautauqua. Yet when the pandemic hit, change came, like it or not. The 2020 season was cancelled, and the place walked very tentatively this spring. They finally decided to open with a reduced schedule in early July. Gradually speakers showed up on the stage of the Amphitheater, musicians reappeared, and the place became something like it used to be.
Naturally, great precautions were taken for the safety of the patrons, as well as the performers. Everyone had to show they had been vaccinated and if not, were relegated to a single section in the amphitheater where everyone had to wear masks. If they refused to abide by that policy, they were sent home.
Fortunately, adversity brings out the best in us, or at least in those of us who are real leaders, and Michael Hill, who became Chautauqua Institution’s latest president in 2017, has clearly demonstrated that he and his staff are able to meet challenges.
As for Chautauqua’s musicians and orchestras, they too seem to be released from confinement and quarantine into a new world that they clearly haven’t known since they were in conservatories in graduate school -- if they ever before knew it at all.
But what brings all this on is a small off-side comment Hill made recently in introducing one speaker --Raphael Bostic, president and CEO of the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta. Now, at this point I have to confess what I previously knew about the Federal Reserve was nothing, except that every few weeks, a boring speaker on the news tells us that interests rates are going up, or going down, or staying the same.
That has to do with the rate of inflation, and whether it is deemed good or bad and whether the economy is growing too fast, too slow, or just right. These experts all seem to reflect the colored sashes at graduation of those that major in accounting: Taupe.
But don’t condemn them all as dull just yet. Dr. Bostic and his fellow governors of the Federal Reserve System are in charge of monetary policy, regulation and payment services. In short, Bostic and his buddies are where the buck stops -- and literally have the power to make getting those bucks easier or harder for you.
Incidentally, the same week at Chautauqua, one in which most of the lectures focused on the economy, was sponsored by Erie Insurance, a company whose corporate headquarters are in that Pennsylvania city, notable last year as the place President Donald Trump said he really didn’t have to visit … until he did, late in the campaign.
His last-minute stop there didn’t do much for him. By this time Pennsylvania was awash with Covid cases and no vaccines were yet available. Mr. Trump claimed the state would come back if there was more backing and dependence on coal, not green energy.
But this was a case of a leader who had, on the most important issue of the year -- the pandemic -- clearly failed to lead.
Erie, and the entire state, voted for Joe Biden.
This next year, Erie Insurance and its founder, Thomas Hagen, sponsored a week focusing on economics at Chautauqua.
Mr. Hagen and Michael Hill brought Raphael Bostic to Chautauqua a few days early where, I gather, he could meet with leaders to talk about its future, I presume. I wasn’t there.
I may be also presuming, but I believe the two people I’ve mentioned -- Tom Hagen and Michael Hill -- brought this off. Tom, who is now retired, is a billionaire, and one of America’s richest people. Hill’s young, and sees opportunities where others don’t. He is a change agent.
Chautauqua may never be the same, but unless I miss my guess – the region around Chautauqua, northwestern Pennsylvania and southwestern New York, still have an important role to play.
It’s worth knowing that the new governor of New York, Kathy Hochul, is from nearby Hamburg, NY. Could President Hill, Mr. Hagen, and some soon-to-arise leader brought to Jamestown help create a much-needed new research university in western New York?
John Heyl Vincent, Chautauqua’s founder, had that vision. Could that idea finally come to pass? You never know.
Douglas Neckers is a retired distinguished research professor, founder of the Center for Photochemical Sciences at Bowling Green State University, and former chair of the board of the Robert H. Jackson Center in Jamestown, N.Y.