I wrote yesterday about lessons learned and a situation I faced running the destination marketing organization for Anchorage, Alaska. This, as Paul Harvey would say, is “the rest of the story.”
They went to the press with a story, just not the real story.
Unfortunately, those attempting the coup chose a straw issue that was very easy to refute, but it was clear the conspirators all had one thing in common, reliance on and allegiance to tourism originating out of Seattle and heavily invested in Southeast Alaska.
This calculation relied on gridlocking a generations-long web of economic and personal relationships. It also played to a deep insecurity, particularly in small towns in Southeast Alaska that Anchorage, with half the state’s population, wanted it all.
The board to which I answered unanimously held fast. The complainants followed through and publicly dropped their membership, but they miscalculated the reaction.
News editorials saw through it as did our Anchorage membership along with nearly every elected official including those in high office.
While from opposing political parties and ideologies, both the mayor and the long-time former mayor who was an officer on our board at the time especially understood.
Even several CEOs of Seattle interests saw through the vendetta and backed away. Meanwhile, many of us worked tirelessly behind the scenes to help those involved save face, but to no avail.
Within a few months or so, those involved in the coup were being transferred or had faded behind the scenes. However, Alaska tourism relationships, stretched thin, would never quite be the same again.
Nor would Alaska tourism.
I pressed on for another year after that, going on my ninth there and one of our most productive given the distraction.
But I also knew from experience that once again I had been unavoidably “splattered with blood.”
Completing startups is incredibly stressful, especially those that shift paradigms. Not yet 40, I had already spent two-thirds of my life forging intense change.
I felt exhausted, teetering on burn out, but more than that I suddenly felt a flood of repressed anger. Even after venting to friends, anger “colonizes the emotional life” and clouds one’s judgment.
As Dr. Robert Karen would pen a dozen years later in a small but powerful book entitled, The Forgiving Self, unresolved anger:
“…is like a cancer, sapping our vitality, aggravating our feelings of shame, weighing us down with depression, and secreting a steady stream of bitterness throughout our being.”
I needed a pause for reflection and rejuvenation. I realize now I also needed to find a way to forgive and hope to be forgiven, especially forgiving myself.
The DMO board and Anchorage community were extremely disappointed when I told them I was moving on - first to help the mayor jumpstart the foundation of and a governing board for a traditional supply-side economic development corporation, then - to take a hiatus from DMO work.
At a farewell dinner thrown by several hundred community leaders, I encouraged them to think only of what we had achieved together by being strategic and data-driven.
I thanked them for forgiving me my mistakes and asked them to forgive others, but it would be another 16 months before I would truly forgive, especially myself.
For two decades after I left, Alaskans would write or call to check in. A long-time newspaper editor there would regularly post updates on my whereabouts. It’s that kind of place.
A little over a year after I left Alaska and was fully rejuvenated, I landed in Durham, North Carolina to participate in my fifth DMO or economic development start up if you count the one I did in college at BYU.
This time, the challenge included reclaiming Durham’s story, assets and identity from Raleigh, a separate but then over-reaching metro on the other side of the co-owned airport.
Having by then just turned age 40, I knew full well what the drill would be.
That certainly didn’t make it any less intense. Within a few years, Raleigh interests were repeatedly calling for me to be fired and openly lobbying for Durham’s DMO to be disbanded, often strapping a sycophant to the front bumper.
It only fueled resilience and hardened support, but I had also learned to look past such threats to try and see opposing points of view while still coming to admire those who couldn’t yet do that in return.
And, as so often happens in life, this story circles back around. Eventually one of the participants in the Alaska coup attempt relocated to North Carolina.
Friendship and mutual respect renewed once he let slip details as to who was behind it.
I wasn’t surprised to learn the ring leader was Seattle-based with long ties to Southeast Alaska but it didn’t matter. I had long ago forgiven - as well as come to grips with the fact - that there was so much I could have done differently, too.
Soon another friend who had lived in Southeast Alaska during that time took charge of a DMO across the state, but we never spoke about what happened other than in coded references and jokes about the job hazards that came with our chosen profession.
Over my more than two decades on the job in Durham before concluding my four-decade career five years ago, I probably made just as many mistakes as I had elsewhere, some the same, just maybe not as stupid.
Whenever I clashed with interests not Durham’s it merely seemed to raise my stock. It’s just that kind of place.
I had not only learned from Spokane and Anchorage, but found Durham even more gritty in my defense. Someone defending me once told someone complaining about me, “he may be an a**hole but he is our a**hole.”
I suspected a few for whom I had long been an irritant might have gloated when I retired but they didn’t.
That didn’t stop a Durham sycophant or two from taking a cheap shot but the only rumor I ever heard involved the ever worsening “essential tremor” in my hands, there from childhood.
Instead several people, thinking it was a degenerative cousin such as Parkinson’s, whispered to friends of mine, “Is this it?,” meaning The End and thus the title of this essay, a hit song by the The Doors when I was in college made even more memorable as the intro during my time in Anchorage for a movie classic.
It wasn’t, but it was time to move on toward an entirely new stage of life.
Looking back I have no regrets. But I can more easily spot what I could have done differently or better. This is human.
As I hope any of my former antagonists are, I am entirely at peace.
No longer a “hired gun,” but each day still pursuing change.