My neck of the woods (actually, the fleshy base of the thumb, because I live in Michigan and we do cool things like show you on our hands where we live) has been in the news a lot lately due to the city of Detroit filing for Chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy by Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr. There is no doubt that there will be costs and great personal losses by the time Orr’s appointment ends and Detroit emerges from bankruptcy. I’m not tackling all of those in today’s post; they’re being discussed vigorously and thoroughly elsewhere. Rather, I’d like to discuss Orr’s planning skills, which are an important leadership quality.
My dad taught me how to play chess. I was not brilliant at it, but I could play decently enough. I haven’t played in decades, yet it seems like I play still chess every day. Strategizing, forecasting, planning, anticipating moves—I learned these skills from chess. Chess is a mental game, and if you’re going to be any good at it, you have to be able to think beyond one turn at a time. Players who don’t plan several moves ahead find themselves checkmated pretty quickly. A good player looks at the entire chess board and takes into account all of the possibilities before making a move. A chess player may even go so far as to pick up a piece and tentatively put it somewhere else, but the only move that counts is the move that is actually made when the player lets go of the chess piece.
I am willing to bet that Kevyn Orr plays chess (perhaps poker), because he is a stickler for detail and seems to have a plan for every possible scenario. I feel for him, too, because I have first-hand experience with people who confuse talking about something with actually doing something—which to me is the difference between keeping your hand on the chess piece and letting go of the piece.
For example, one of the biggest controversies of Orr’s tenure thus far has been the valuation of all city assets and liabilities. Orr is having valuations done on everything—pensions, health care, parks, lighting, water and sewer, parking garages, vehicles, and even the art at the Detroit Institute of Arts. As Orr identifies the city’s assets (because even the city isn’t sure what all it owns), and then as the assets are valued, he gets a better understanding of the city’s overall financial situation. He can take that information and develop plans, contingency plans, options, and recommendations to present to the bankruptcy court. He has specifically said on the record that he doesn’t have his eye on selling the DIA’s art (and if he tries, there will be lawsuits for sure), but nevertheless still needs to know its value (I agree with this—he needs to know the value of all assets so that he can prove he’s done his due diligence).
By now you all are thinking, “Poor, naïve Eva. He wouldn’t go to all this effort if that wasn’t his plan!” To which I say, “I don’t think so.” This level of planning and forethought may seem illogical—why put yourself through it if you are just going to abandon it? You put yourself through it because no one, not even Kevyn Orr, can predict the future. As the bankruptcy unfolds and new variables come up, I expect that some plans will fall to the wayside; some to the back burner; new plans will emerge; and plans we didn’t even know about will play out.
During the recession, we worked on and discussed many unpopular budget-balancing options at the library—such as furlough days, reductions in benefits, elimination of benefits—and abandoned the majority of them, but that doesn’t mean the efforts were wasted, because I can now say with confidence “We are not instituting furlough days” and explain why. The investment of time and effort was valuable, because eliminating options got us closer to the final plan. And even with a “final plan,” I try to build in some wiggle room so that we can adjust the plan if needed—and I expect Orr is doing that, too.
I do not think I will agree with everything that shakes out from Detroit’s bankruptcy; I don’t agree with everything now, and I am certain that some of the final outcomes will make me angry. But whatever I may think of Kevyn Orr, whether it’s now or two years from now when his appointment ends, I will say this for him: The man is a planner, and I admire that. It would be fun to play chess with him someday.