Opinion & Editorial

Leading – without excuses

Michelle Amberg, Creswell city manager. Erin Tierney/The Chronicle

Publisher’s note: This is the first in an occasional series of articles profiling women leaders.

In an era where accountability and self-awareness often are lacking, spending any time around Michelle Amberg is a refreshing alternative. No excuses. No finger-pointing. No blame. It’s full responsibility, all-out ownership, all the time.
”If you can’t carry the freight,” she said matter-of-factly while sitting in her first-floor City Hall office several weeks ago, ”don’t pick it up.”
Amberg, who became Creswell’s city administrator in 2014 and is now its city manager, inherited a mess when she arrived from her city manager role in Toledo, Ore.
Madeline Phillips, who has worked for Amberg since her arrival, said Amberg ”transformed the city into a collaborative environment,” where people weren’t subject to a pecking order. ”She’s restored a level of confidence that drives organizational success,” Phillips said.
Indeed, it’s how a small, discordant municipal government in Creswell began working in greater harmony.
”I think of myself not as a leader, but a conductor,” Amberg said. ”The sheet music comes from the Council, then I teach the music to the different instrumental groups (departments), all in an effort to please the audience (residents).”
I’ve been fortunate to work for and with outstanding leaders, many of them women. Leading is hard work; doing it in a climate of institutionalized bias makes it all the more challenging. How do you lead through that?
Amberg says authenticity counts. A lot. It comes up, repeatedly, throughout a conversation.
”Being genuine, being authentic … it’s about 100% sincerity,” she said, describing her style in a nutshell. ”I’m a thought-oriented person. I listen. And ask a lot of questions.”
Effective communication is a critical tool for a leader and, Phillips said, Amberg lets individuals speak for themselves. ”It’s empowering; people are given the chance to speak and be heard.”
You probably won’t ever hear Amberg use the phrase ”servant leadership.” But, if you observe her long enough, you’d certainly witness it. I was slightly bemused, slightly alarmed and totally impressed when I saw her, on crutches after knee surgery, yanking down a yard sale poster from an Oregon Avenue utility pole last fall.
That anecdote speaks to a humble leader, for sure, and in this case, one who came up the hard way. For someone who holds nearly 10 degrees in everything from biology to public administration to zoology, her most advanced degree might be from the school of hard knocks.
You know that she knows things. And here’s what she most wants young people to know: ”At-risk kids can lead the world. It doesn’t have to be a sad world.” She pauses, for a moment. The thinker, in mid-process. ”You know, failure is an option; it’s how you grow!”
Amberg easily recalls the big moments and key influencers in her life:
She learned about persistence from her parents, celebrating their 50th anniversary this year; a second-grade teacher, Mrs. Barbara Ahern, helped Michelle gain the confidence to achieve a fifth-grade reading level early in her third-grade year; a friend, whose father was the president of a university in Ecuador, wisely encouraged her to study public administration.
And the same was true of tough times. Her childhood was a boom-or-bust cycle, with her father, a self-taught aerospace engineer for NASA, going through periods of unemployment and moving around the country; fighting through sexist and misogynistic environments in city jobs; a career change into volunteerism and non-denominational, faith-based missionary work in the Middle East; a re-entry into government work that led to Toledo; and, finally, ”Dave Stram came and got me” for the job in Creswell.
”I was raised with a view that women who have to work are sad and depressed,” she said. During periods of poverty as a child, ”we would not have had clothes without churches” and ”the fire department delivered Christmas.”
Her grandma introduced her to ”Little Women.” ”You’re Jo” she told young Michelle, a nod to her strong, determined nature.
Amberg, continues to look forward, persevere, and focus on the possibilities, driven in part, ”by the hum of the city. That energy that gives and takes every day coming through that front door.”

Noel Nash is publisher of The Chronicle.



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