Some of the most interesting combinations aren't immediately obvious. For instance, last year I was sitting in a planning meeting for the Bustle By The Bay Christmas festival when Brewtopia Coffee owner Aaron Bolt slid a mug in front of me containing bacon hot chocolate, his entry in a winter drink contest going on between downtown Bay City food and beverage businesses. Though I was initially skeptical, I have to admit that the two worked together fabulously. I like bacon and I like hot chocolate, but if you asked me up front, I wouldn't have guessed the combination would work. However, somewhere in the broad middle ground between the two distinct flavors was a very satisfying concoction that had been lost on my casual observations. Two American staples, bringing out the best in each other. My lasting memory is the smile it brought to my face.
I've known Jimmy Greene for a little while now, but only in the “modern way” - via Facebook. On paper, or its modern electronic equivalent, we aren't the most obvious pairing. I'm the center leaning small town lefty, former management material, kind of a nerd and a lot more “vocal” online than I am in person. Jimmy, on the other hand, is the center leaning urban conservative - a self-made man who came up through the trades, with the kind of electric personality that brings energy to every room he enters. On credentials alone, similar to bacon and hot chocolate. Substantial on their own individual merits, but not the most apparently compatible combination you can conjure up.
Over the course of a year or so, we managed to get involved in some to the spirited debates that help keep social media lively. I also began to talk to a lot of people that I respected who really looked up to Jimmy. Though we may have come to it from different starting points or angles of approach, we seemed to be mining the same sort of territory - the ability of the individual to remain self-reliant in an increasingly arduous and imbalanced world. Our apparently opposing poles actually gave us an awful lot of middle ground in which to operate. I decided that it was time to meet the guy the old-fashioned way - over breakfast.
On The Soapbox
“I think people find me interesting because I am an enigma.”
It doesn't take more than a few minutes to figure out what Jimmy is talking about: A black Republican. A skilled tradesman who supports the “Right to Work” and free enterprise over the security and collective power of organized labor. A devout Christian who advocates for gay rights. The list goes on. On first glance, the man is a walking contradiction.
What you can tell is that he has thought about these issues, talked about them with other intelligent people and formed his own opinion, independent of any pressures that might have been exerted from within the circles in which he travels. The way he puts it, “I am so fierce about my values, because I arrived at them on my own accord.”
More than anything, the first impression you will make of Mr. Greene is that he is a doer. Our meeting was his third of the morning and it was only 9:00 AM. On any given day you might find him anywhere - at an event staged by the Associated Builders and Contractors (of which he is President and CEO), in a public meeting, at a regional Chamber of Commerce event or mentoring area youngsters on the possibilities of careers in technology and the trades.
Recently, he even managed to alert authorities when he came upon a woman in distress while at a conference in Denver. The Denver police say he saved the woman's life. I know people here in the Saginaw area that due to his compassion and mentorship, say the same thing.
The other conclusion that you will quickly make when you meet Jimmy is that he is not afraid to share his opinion. By no means is he one of those guys who defend a position come hell or high water. But he will debate, engage alternative viewpoints, update his as necessary, and give others credit when credit is due. He actually summarized my own feeling on the value of these spirited discussions and occasional epiphanies when he said, “Isn't it great to know that you are still learning and still growing, even at this age?” These are themes with him, clearly core to the values he holds dear.
We also discussed those that sometimes question “who he thinks he is,” getting up on the soapbox or blurting out opinions that other people typically keep private. As someone who often sits on the opposite side of these debates, I'd just say take a look at the guy's resume. He has earned his place at the front of the discussion and, regardless of your own level of achievement; you'd be smart to listen when he talks. For the most part, that's what I did over breakfast.
Save Our Cities
“Management is doing things right. Leadership is doing the right things.” - Peter Drucker
Our conversation started around our urban areas, especially the formerly great Michigan population centers like Detroit, Flint and Saginaw. My opening question was simply “What went wrong?”
Jimmy's first response was indicative of his ability to separate cause from effect when diagnosing a problem. “It's easy to blame the low hanging fruit - urban blight, loss of tax revenue, welfare - but these are actually symptoms of a long, slow decay due to poor leadership.”
“Many people might find this hard to believe, but I think Saginaw is currently under good management. But good management is different than good leadership. People tend to vote on politics, not on public policy. It's in the middle ground between the two opposites that public policy resides.”
Greene used an interesting recent example of how Governor Chris Christy (R-NJ) upset many of his core constituencies when he signed legislation banning “gay conversion therapy,” in which parents engage therapists in an effort to quash “homosexual tendencies” in children and adolescents. As Greene put it “That is leadership. You have to govern for the masses.”
With respect to the financial plight of the cities, we both seemed to agree that some problems are likely intractable without aggressive solutions for long-term liabilities, like public employee pensions. To a large degree, these debts are a past generation who made deals promising away future generation's wealth. The money simply isn't there. There are many reasons, from questionable financial assumptions to chronic underfunding, to arcane practices like “final salary pensions,” which tend to inflate pension obligations greatly when compared to market based systems more typical of the private sector.
Politics, as Greene put it, are also at the root of the problem. “Republicans can't bring themselves to implement a sensible tax solution. Democrats can't get their core to accept and adapt to today's realities.”
There is plenty of agreement that we are experiencing a systemic failure when it comes to our public institutions. While there are regional bright spots, like the Uptown Bay City project that is a huge shot in the arm for local tradesmen and contractors, there are just as many areas of concern. Services are at risk, the well being of pensioners settled here and elsewhere is under threat, and potential solutions when they are offered often lead to the kind of bare-knuckled politics that make subsequent co-operation difficult. One might view it as an entirely dire circumstance, but this is where Jimmy Greene's primary message kicks in.
The Age of Personal Accountability
It was at this point that I posed the question to Jimmy, “So, if our traditional social and political systems are going to struggle to cope in the short term, what does the individual need to do to thrive?”
Jimmy's response was one that you would expect from someone who has seen every flash in the pan who was going to get rich or change the world in a minute. “Do not look for the economic opportunity first. The first thing you need to do is get smarter. People smarter than them intimidate people. People respect intelligence. To get ahead you have to be on par with the person across from you. These days with all of the resources available, you have to intentionally wake up and decide to be a dumbass. Google it. Go to the library. Go to school. It's right there for you.”
“The next thing is to be where you are supposed to be. Don't sit there and be smart on the couch. Go to the City Council meeting and listen. Be part of the discussion. Too many people want to be the smartest guy on their couch. It's not enough if you want to make a difference.”
It was with this that Jimmy looked at his phone, realized the time, and told me we'd have to wrap it up. He had somewhere to be, because that's who he is. Within a few minutes we had shaken hands and he was off to fulfill his role as a catalyst for change.
And I thought that I got stuff done.
It might sound like a futile thing to try and do, but if I were going to find one word to describe the complex character that is Jimmy Greene, it would be “progress.” Leave out for a minute that he has been able to recognize and capitalize on chances that might not have come his way a generation ago.
Jimmy Greene is always moving forward. His message is one of vision, backed by the credibility of a self-made man who has made a habit of turning obstacles into opportunities. If you want to know what a leader is, I can show you exactly what one looks like.