Where’s The Leadership?

I can emphasize how the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) employees and their families feel as they watch the armed illegal occupation of the Malheur Wildlife Refuge slander them for a second straight week. The White House states this is a local law enforcement matter while  senior leadership at the Department of Interior and BLM remain publicly silent.

Not everyone in Interior is quiet. The Department of Fish and Wildlife condemned removal of a fence that now allows cattle to graze on the refuge. This potentially sets back decades of hard work by local citizens, local ranchers and others to preserve a sanctuary that hosts over 302 bird species.

The national media is being ridiculed for characterizing this armed group of white men as “occupiers,” “militants,” and “militia” instead of terrorists. On social media, they are either “patriots” or “Y’all Qaeda.” Given this is the west, let’s use a 19th century dime novel term: outlaws. But, it’s an outlaw gang with a leader who’s motivated people to take an illegal action, the key word being motivated.

The 2015 Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey (FEVS) shows that only 39 percent of federal employees believe “… senior leaders generate high levels of motivation and commitment in the workforce.” Comparatively, only 19 percent of Americans surveyed by Gallop Poll trust the federal government to do the right thing. Does the silence of senior leaders at Interior or BLM enhance or degrade employee motivation or public trust?

I don’t know why the senior Interior and BLM leaders refuse to say anything. I would hazard to guess they have adopted the same “wait and see” technique that other elected officials and senior administrators take when faced with this type of situation. True, the technique offers time to construct a response. However, the tactical advantage is shifted to the opponent or the media to frame the controversy. When government responds, it’s too late. The public’s interest has moved on. But the seeds of incompetence grows, eroding confidence.

In business, negative perceptions impact profitability. Faced with a public assault on an individual or the company’s reputation, they implement crisis communications methods. A senior company leader states their case before the cameras early on. Why are government leaders afraid to follow suit?

Harney County Sheriff Dave Ward choose the business approach. Several days after the outlaws holed up on the refuge, the county hired a professional gunslinger in the form of public information officer. Next came the town hall meeting. Akin to Gary Cooper in “High Noon,” flanked by a local defense attorney and two fellow county sheriffs, he told his citizens that these outsiders impeded their liberty and their freedom. He related his wife had left town after her car’s tires had been slashed. A young teenager feared she or her friends would be hurt by these armed hooligans. By meetings end, Ward had solidified town support against the outlaw gang. A local sheriff showed leadership.

While Harney County citizens want the gang gone, the underlying problem with BLM management of western lands remains. It occupied center stage during the three-hour meeting. Interestingly, the citizens present were not angry with the local BLM staff. They are respected by local ranchers, environmentalists and bird watchers. Nevertheless, the citizens were frustrated with Washington D.C.’s increasingly restrictive directives that “impede” the community’s livelihood.

What public message would have been sent if a senior BLM leader from Washington, D.C. had stood with Sheriff Mark that night?

For local BLM staff, their message to the community would have been “we’re here with you” and “we’re here to partner in finding a solution.”

Submitted by Larry Keeton


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