The main problem with a siege mentality is that you don’t even know you have it.

You lose the ability to recognize the true dimensions of a problem.

You think cleverness can make things better and are mystified that it only compounds the problem.

You lose sight of the organization’s best interests because you think your own survival and the organization’s are the same.

You begin to believe your own justifications and lose sight of how badly they sound to other people.

You issue prepared statements that you think are buying you time while they are seen by every one else as stonewalling or desperation.

You close off your circle of advisers, eliminating divergent views when you need them most.

The Slow Bleed

Because you are trapped in the siege mentality, in the end, you are destined to die a death by a thousand pin pricks. And, along the way, you squander any reserve of good will and compassion that you ever had.

If any of this sounds familiar, it’s probably because you’ve been reading newspaper coverage of the sad saga of MLG&W. It is destined to end ugly, shredding the reputations of both MLGW President Joseph Lee and the public utility company itself.

Here’s the strongest indication of how distorted this embattled world becomes: Mr. Lee and his supporters have come to believe that the tide has turned and that he can ride out the current controversy.

It’s amazing to imagine, but in such an insular world, the 7-6 vote by Memphis City Council against removing Mr. Lee from his job is interpreted as a major victory. Lost in the process is the simple logic of the public sector — anyone in a key appointed job who has his future voted on by the city legislative body has already lost the battle.

An Oncoming Train?

But in the pressurized environment that is the president’s office at MLGW, they are so caught up in winning the vote by City Council – with the surprise help of City Council member and mayoral hopeful Carol Chumney – they see the one vote margin as evidence of light at the end of the tunnel.

They seem oblivious to the fact that this razor thin margin is tantamount to a vote of no confidence for Mr. Lee, and clearly, it is no longer possible for him to perform his job in a way that it deserves.

All of this is a symptom of how politicized the environment of MLGW has become. Once a sanctuary from the political machinations that shroud most public agencies, it now is so deeply entrenched in politics as usual that it gauges success in terms of City Council votes about its president and politically calibrated prepared statements.

Over his decade and a half in office, Memphis Mayor Willie W. Herenton has pointedly, and repeatedly, said that he’s not a politician but a CEO. If that is the case, he’s forgotten the first rule of an effective CEO – the soundest decision is based on what is best for the enterprise, not what is best for an individual in the corporation.

It’s Not About You

At this kind of pivotal point in the life of the private sector, the decision isn’t made on the basis of whether the person is right or wrong or on whether he is good or bad. That’s not the issue. It’s simply whether the person has the backing from the stockholders and public to do his job.

If Mayor Herenton is truly a CEO, there’s no time like the present to demonstrate it.

If all of this isn’t reason enough for Mr. Lee to step aside, it’s now obvious that the news media are in this for the long haul.

If Mayor Herenton cares anything about MLGW having a chance to rehabilitate its badly damaged public image, he should urge Mr. Lee to step aside. Otherwise, every decision made by him will be scrutinized to assess whether it is further proof of the poor judgment and preferential treatment that have been revealed in recent weeks.


Another telling indicator for the siege mentality gripping the MLGW president’s office is Mr. Lee’s refusal to cooperate fully with the City Council investigation directed by respected local private attorney Saul Belz. It is directly connected to a flawed understanding of the Council vote, because Mr. Lee assumes that he is safe for now because of the 7-6 vote and that he can stonewall the inquiry.

It is the worst mistake of all. At best, his refusal to answer questions reinforces the public perception that he places his personal interest ahead of the public interest. At worst, it sends the message that he fears action by the federal grand jury, leading him to avoid answers to questions that will be recorded and reported by the Council’s investigator.

This crisis has reached the point where no one can take care of Mr. Lee but Mr. Lee. Apparently, his gut told him a couple of weeks ago that it was time to resign, but Mayor Herenton refused to accept it. If Mr. Lee believes that the mayor and others are giving him advice based solely on what is best for him and his future, he’s misreading this situation as badly as he did the request by Councilman Edmund Ford for special treatment with his overdue bills.

Mr. Lee feels that he is under siege. But he has the power to get out of the foxhole and do what’s best for himself. In so doing, for the first time in months, he can take back control of his own life. At this point, there is no greater victory than that.