Maine leadership in changing times

This article, by Linda Silka of the University of Maine, was originally posted in the Bangor Daily News on September 11, 2018.

Dignitaries applaud the unveiling of a portrait of former Maine Republican Sen. Margaret Chase Smith at the Capitol in Washington, Oct 18, 2005. Attending are (from left) House Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee; Maine Sen. Susan Collins; Anne St. Ledger Herrin; John Bernier; Ronald Frontin, the South Thomaston artist who painted the portrait; Maine Sen. Olympia Snowe; and Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada. (AP Photo/Lawrence Jackson)

Leadership is a term that we all toss around, assuming we know what we mean and that we are all using the term in the same way. In Maine, the need for discussions on leadership is taking on greater urgency: Do we have the leaders we need? Are our leaders doing a good job? Could they do a better job? How do we prepare the next generation of leaders?

The most recent Maine Policy Review is devoted to examining leadership questions: How do approaches to leadership need to be transformed? How do we tackle such dilemmas as drawing on past leadership lessons when the future will likely call for types of leadership that we can’t even begin to imagine? I’ve quoted some of the authors below because their direct words are great starting points for the conversations we need to have together in Maine.

What is changing? Scholars Richard Ackerman, Ian Mette and Catherine Biddle note in their article that “The great man theory of leadership, a notion where a single person, the great man, is able to solve all problems by himself — is passe.” They point out that “No leader, no matter how brilliant, knows everything and has all the answers.” Their work with schools has demonstrated, they note, that “leadership development is perhaps one of the most vexing adaptive challenges facing public education systems.”

Other articles focus on the rapid changes in the Maine economy and implications for what might be needed in leadership. One of the pieces (“Collaborative Leadership is Key for Maine’s Forest Products Industry”) documents the great losses in Maine’s forestry industry, yet points out “with good leadership, times of trouble can become times of opportunity.” The researchers (Brooke MacDonald and colleagues) report on new approaches to collaborative leadership now being implemented in this key Maine industry.

Maine has a well-deserved reputation for its exceptional past leaders. One of the questions revisited throughout the articles is how to draw on that history as we move forward into new times. In her article Linda Cross Godfrey, an important leader in eastern Maine, reflects on what she learned from Margaret Chase Smith both through observation and through correspondence. Her essay includes excerpts from correspondence between the two and we are asked to think about what Smith’s leadership means for us now and what lessons we might take into the future.

And the articles remind us of the need to understand that we may not be able to do the exact things as our world-renowned past leaders but we can still learn higher order lessons from them, such as how to take the long view. As David Hart, director of the University of Maine’s George J. Mitchell Center for Sustainability Solutions, notes: when Sen. Mitchell spoke of his experiences chairing hundreds of meetings during the multiyear, conflict-ridden process that led to the Good Friday Peace Accord in Northern Ireland, Senator Mitchell once described it as “300 days of failure and one day of success.”

Ultimately, how do we pay attention to the long view taken by our leaders in the past and draw lessons that speak to the future? The importance of leadership can’t be underestimated. As retired UMaine President Susan Hunter reminds us in her article: “Leadership is tested — and matters — most in the face of challenging situations. Times of crisis usually require large-scale change, significant innovation, and problems. It’s there that the hard work is done, and it may seem particularly difficult to do it right. But the alternative — poor leadership — is not an acceptable option.”

I encourage you to take a look at this exciting and accessible Policy Review issue. It is easy to find: there is a copy at every public library in Maine. You can also freely download any and all of the articles by going to The way we will make progress is by engaging one another in addressing these issues.

Linda Silka serves as executive editor of Maine Policy Review at the University of Maine in Orono. She is a professor emerita of the School of Economics and retired director of the Margaret Chase Smith Policy Center. This column reflects her views and expertise and does not speak on behalf of the university. She is a member of the Maine chapter of the national Scholar Strategy Network, which brings together scholars across the country to address public challenges and their policy implications. Members’ columns appear in the BDN every other week.

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