Governors as Leaders

Rhonda McBride is an Alaskan and a well-known journalist.  She recently interviewed me at my lake house for my view of an Alaskan governor’s role in making a gas pipeline a reality for the State.  Over the last 30 years many different projects were evaluated to get Alaska’s massive natural gas reserves to a market.  The challenge that each of these projects faced is that the gas reserves are located on the North Slope of Alaska, thousands of miles away from the nearest market big enough to support the $60 billion investment required to produce the gas.

As a retired Alaska oil industry executive, I have been involved to varying degrees in several of the pipeline projects with as many as four different governors.  The question Rhonda asked me is should a governor be a “ranch boss” who pushes investors into building the gas pipeline or is it better to be a “bridge builder” who makes connections between investors and markets?  My answer was neither – a governor’s job is to be a leader.  A leader does not focus on the work of building a pipeline; he or she focuses on the people who do the work.

Here’s how I explain this.  A governor’s job is to create an environment of trust in which investors are willing to risk $60 billion and elected officials are confident that the State will receive sufficient and stable income.  Excluding the buyers of the gas, there are six parties involved:  three companies who own the gas (BP, ConocoPhillips, and ExxonMobil – also referred to as the Producers), a pipeline company called TransCanada, the Governor’s administration, and the State’s Legislature.  These are entities, but when you think about the human element, there are 14 key “gatekeepers” within the entities.  These include the Governor, two executives from each of the Producers and TransCanada, Commissioners for the State’s Department of Natural Resources and Department of Revenue, the State’s Attorney General, the Alaskan Speaker of the House of Representatives, and the President of the Alaska Senate.  These 14 people carry significant influence in their respective organizations and nothing will happen without their commitment and stewardship.  That is what makes them “gatekeepers”.

It’s noteworthy that only 14 people are critically involved in making the decision to build a gas pipeline.  They’re all human beings with hopes, dreams, aspirations, and fears.  In order for them to put their reputations on the line within their organizations they need to be assured that each will do what they say they will do. That’s called trust, and the only way to build trust is for people to have spent sufficient time in conversations with each other to establish relationships.  Without conversations, there are no relationships, and there is no trust.

A governor’s job is to steward the conversations that create the relationships.  These conversations can’t be stuck in the past; they must be all about the future and what’s possible.  We witnessed similar conversations this week 6700 miles away in Singapore when the presidents of China and Taiwan met for the first time since the two sides split in 1949.  Their joint statement after the meeting was, “Today we are sitting together so as not to replay the tragedies of history.”

My observation is that several Alaskan governors understood the connection between conversations and relationships.  For example, when Sean Parnell became governor the Producers were splintered into two camps, pursuing two different projects that ultimately did not move forward because the target market for the gas evaporated.  Over the course of several years he engaged the “gatekeepers” in conversations about possibilities.  Typically, such conversations begin as an exchange of opinions, then shift to debates, then to dialogues, and ultimately to where parities see a common ground.  In such conversations people eventually share their concerns honestly, and that act makes them vulnerable.  It takes time for people to become comfortable with vulnerability.  Allowing oneself to be vulnerable is critical in such dealings as it is the basis upon which trust in built.  Funny thing about vulnerability – we shy away from it thinking we will appear weak, yet we admire it greatly when we observe it in others.  

The Governor’s conversations catalyzed an amazing alignment.  It was a breakthrough with a new market concept and key financial terms agreed on by all six parties.  When Bill Walker was elected Governor, four of the 14 “gatekeepers” were removed and replaced by four people who had not been part of the conversations that built the relationship that yielded the trust.  A trust gap will emerge in any group of people when members of the group change. The gap has nothing to do with the qualities of the four new people – rather it’s the fact that there are four new people. A leader will nurture the conversations that rebuild the environment of trust.  It’s being neither a “ranch boss” nor a “bridge builder” – it’s being a leader.

Going forward, some leadership wisdom from Genghis Khan seems appropriate.  He’s reported to have said, “There is no honor in fighting, only winning” and “There’s no value in anything until it is finished.”  With TransCanada withdrawing from the project, we are down to 12 “gatekeepers”.  Now is the time to stop fighting and finish the pipeline project.  The value at stake is far greater than the State’s revenue from selling the gas.  It’s about an economic engine built on the availability of natural gas in areas surrounding Deadhorse, Wiseman, Coldfoot, Bettles, Alatna, Stevens Village, onto Livengood, Minto, Fairbanks, Nenana and Cantwell, and through Trapper Creek, Willow, Big Lake, and down to Anchorage.  That’s an untapped economic frontier for Alaska with unexplored possibilities.  Among the 12 “gatekeepers” the leader will be the one who seeks to build trust amongst the group, focuses on the people who do the work, forgets the past, puts egos aside, apologizes if necessary, and takes the State into the new frontier.


There are 2 comments so far

  • 7 years ago · Reply

    Al Bolea has written the single best essay describing what leadership is required to monetize Alaska North Slope gas.

    Al’s work also reveals leadership qualities enabling Alaska to successfully confront its other 21st Century challenges.

    Rhonda McBride’s initiative in stimulating this discussion is noteworthy, a creative contribution to her audience and to all of Alaska’s citizens.

  • 7 years ago · Reply

    Al Bolea gives us a definitive essay, “Governors As Leaders”, on the subject of contemporary Alaska gubernatorial leadership. The essay’s leadership message is both perceptive and practical. The essay’s lessons can also apply to managers in a variety of private or public circumstances.

    Chief executives with traits of a “ranch boss” or a “bridge builder” may find it hard to break old habits and explore new principles. But those open to “lifelong learning of leadership lessons”, no matter what their age or history, can still peek around provincial blinders to improve the peripheral vision identifying today’s successful leader.

    One also must be grateful for Rhonda McBride’s initiative which, it seems, ignited the creative sparks responsible for Al’s important contribution to Alaska’s growing body of knowledge. Her creativity is a gift to all Alaskans.

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