What does it mean to be a Virginian?

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by Bernie Niemeier

The Lead Virginia Class of 2007 completed its year with a visit to the Richmond region.  This included a reception and dinner at the Virginia Historical Society, a tour of the newly renovated Capitol, a tour of the VCU Health System’s Massey Cancer Center and panel discussions by area business and civic leaders on the challenges and opportunities faced by the Greater Richmond area.  The group also toured J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College, Virginia Commonwealth University and Virginia Union University.  A visit to St. John’s Church for a re-enactment of Patrick Henry’s historic “Liberty or Death” speech imparted a terrific sense of the leading role of Virginia had in the formation of our nation.  Finally, the class finished with a graduation dinner at The Jefferson Hotel.

Much of what we saw in Richmond is work in progress.  VCU’s Broad Street expansion just west of downtown, new state offices to the east and biotech developments north of Broad Street are quickly creating new life in the areas between.  There is a lot of excavation in downtown Richmond.  Surely, the structures that fill these holes will be better than what they replace. Richmond appears poised on a new era of revitalization and economic progress.

Just days after the Lead Virginia visit, Richmond’s business and civic leaders received the “Crupi Report.”  In 1992, the city’s business leaders engaged Dr. James A. Crupi, a Texas-based consultant, to study the region and deliver recommendations; the result was a frank indictment of weak leadership and lack of regional cooperation.

Fifteen years later, a second report was commissioned.  Several of the earlier recommendations — improving the airport and developing a biotech park — have been accomplished. Leadership is better but still is characterized by factionalism and lack of regional vision.

What the original Crupi report told us about the region’s potential was the glass was half empty; the new report says that it is half full.  But we are still only holding a half glass!

Richmond’s leaders are well aware of the opportunities but will need to work together regionally, and most likely will have to have the help of the General Assembly, to maximize the potential for a better future.

Those outside of government might not realize the role of the legislature in these issues.  It arises from our county and independent city structure, annexation legislation and the Dillon Rule, which states that local governments only have the powers granted to them by the state legislature.
These structural checks and balances are not necessarily bad.  Time has proven their usefulness, but they can make us slower to respond to opportunities.  Success in Virginia requires cooperation.  Consensus-building is an important characteristic of leadership in our state.

After seven visits to regions around the state with Lead Virginia’s Class of 2007, there was a recurring question, “What does it mean to be a Virginian?”  Natives of the state take many things for granted — that the history of Virginia is the history of the nation and that every child has visited the historic sites and museums portraying the development of our enduring democratic culture.  Those new to our state do not necessarily share these same experiences and perhaps do not share the same sense of statesmanship that we consider so dear.

A few months ago, I interviewed Carol and Jack Weber, a husband-and-wife team who teach executive education programs at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business.  Their work with business executives from around the nation and around the globe includes the assessment of leadership characteristics using 360-degree evaluations. I asked them if they had uncovered any different cultural characteristics among business executives from Virginia.

Their answers were interesting, including in part: “There is a courtesy in Virginia that is missing in other states and countries.  Even if people disagree, there is a less confrontational way of dealing with it … People in Virginia also tend to have a pretty optimistic view of life. The best leaders are optimistic about the future and convey an unshakable confidence that tomorrow can be better than today … If there is a downside; it’s to be more challenging of business as usual and to be more willing to engage in constructive conflict.”

These observations summarize something that we all know to be true.  Virginians have great opportunities and great expectations.  We are fortunate in our success, respectful of our past and optimistic about our future.  As 2008 unfolds, I invite each of you to engage yourself in a constructive spirit of cooperation that keeps Virginia growing and a great place to do business.

Bernie Niemeier, publisher of Virginia Business, is an alumnus (’07) and board member of Lead Virginia.  Lead Virginia is a nonpartisan statewide organization that brings together leaders with the intention of creating “social capital” that will positively impact Virginia’s future.

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