Many years ago, I had the distinct honor of serving as chief of staff of one of the most decorated and combat-tested divisions in the Army, the 10th Mountain Division (light infantry) stationed at Fort Drum, New York.
Most of the division was forward deployed in Afghanistan when I was asked to speak at a large event in Syracuse, N.Y. The overarching theme of my speech was our soldiers were performing magnificently conducting difficult combat operations in a most challenging environment.
They were taking the fight to our enemy and demonstrating great courage, willingly putting themselves in harm’s way for the defense of our nation, including the freedoms and safety of those in the very audience I was speaking to.
I closed by emphatically asking them to “support” our outstanding soldiers who were sacrificing so much for them. Then I added, “I want every one of you to go out tomorrow and buy a yellow ribbon and display it proudly to show your support for our exceptional soldiers.” I got a rousing ovation and left quite proud of myself.
It was a long ride back to Fort Drum that night on Interstate 81. As I sat in the car absorbed in my own thoughts, my driver and trusted confidant, who had been with me for several years, broke the silence.
Jimmy was an outstanding young soldier from east Tennessee with the corresponding heavy accent. His words that night have stayed with me to this day.
“Sir, I want to ask you a question that’s been on my mind since your speech. You told all those folks that if they went out and bought yellow ribbons they’d be supporting the soldiers, right?”
“That’s right, Jimmy”, I replied.
Immediately he responded, “Well I’m a soldier and I’d be danged if I can figure out how that’s going to help me one bit. Seems to me them buying yellow ribbons is just helping the Chinese who make the yellow ribbons and Walmart who sells ‘em.”
Wow! My young driver from east Tennessee was right. The buying and displaying of a yellow ribbon was simply “symbolic” of their support and without specific action beyond that it had no real direct value to those it is intended to support.
Though I wholeheartedly support this important emblematic gesture (I have many yellow ribbons myself), it does nothing truly tangible for our brave men and women in uniform.
Heading back to Fort Drum that dark night Jimmy reinforced a valuable lesson – true support is about taking meaningful action. And great leaders do that through their words and deeds. After all, leadership is a verb not a noun.
In Hampton Roads, it is encouraging the concept of regionalism is being more robustly discussed. In fact, most engaged leaders clearly understand the region is the organizing structure of our economy and regionalism is the bedrock of our long-term economic success.
Quite simply, if we are to compete on the state, national and global levels, Hampton Roads needs to look and act like a region. There are plenty of regional leaders who understand this and are putting hard work and effort behind their regional language. It is our pleasure to work with them.
But we still have those who openly speak in support of regionalism yet take comfort in the safe environment of parochialism or “the way it’s always been.”
No doubt change is hard and it can be risky, but history has demonstrated over time that with risk brings great reward. We can ill afford to allow regionalism to become our yellow ribbon. We must avoid allowing complacency to cause regionalism to become only a hollow symbolic gesture that makes us feel good.
We need big, bold, outcome-oriented leaders to move this region forward. Leaders who are willing to work hard and accept calculated risks and commit to an earnest effort to bring about a greater good over self-interest. Leaders with strategic acuity who are willing and capable of leveraging the great strengths and diversity of our region while simultaneously working to eliminate or mitigate the challenging hurdles of regionalism that are holding us back.
We need leaders who are willing and capable of garnering the requisite support through transparent, trustworthy, meaningful dialogue and collaboration so Hampton Roads speaks with one voice on major regional issues.
At its very core, the mission of the Hampton Roads Chamber is to set the conditions for businesses to succeed allowing jobs to be created from within.
We work hard to set favorable conditions in Hampton Roads so the economic development professionals can market the region as an asset-rich, highly desirable place to do business. And we work hard to set the conditions that facilitate an extraordinary quality of life all citizens.
For far too long we have lamented about or economy and the trajectory it’s on. The time is right! The region is ready! All we have to do is bring it together.
Let’s put a bright ribbon of regionalism on Hampton Roads. Let’s make it a ribbon of many colors as a celebration of our wonderful diversity and uniqueness while showcasing the unity of our efforts toward our brighter economic future. One region, one voice!
Bryan K. Stephens is the president and CEO of the Hampton Roads Chamber.
The Chamber’s staff continues to be focused on helping you and your business find greater success. Remember, this is YOUR Chamber – we work for you! Let’s keep the conversation going.