This story was published in The Chronicle in February 2020. It was awarded first place for "Best Editorial" in the 2020 Oregon Newspapers Publishers Association Awards.
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 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 2014, 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).”
This week, I’m kicking off an occasional series of articles profiling women leaders. There is no shortage from which to choose. I’ve been fortunate to work for and with many strong leaders, many of whom have been women. Leading is hard work; doing it in a climate of institutionalized bias makes it all the more challenging.
So what makes great leaders tick? We know that leadership is not a function of position or title. It’s behavioral, whether you’re the boss or an entry-level employee.
Amberg says authenticity counts. A lot. It comes up repeatedly, organically, throughout a conversation.
“Being genuine, being authentic … it’s about 100% sincerity,” she said, describing her leadership style in a nutshell. “I’m a thought-oriented person. I listen. And ask a lot of questions.”
Phillips describes Amberg’s leadership thusly: “She’s empowered people.”
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 up 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, still 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 advanced knowledge from the school of hard knocks is front and center.
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 draws upon 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 that proved to be learning experiences. Her childhood was a boom-or-bust cycle, with her father, a self-taught aerospace engineer for NASA, going through sustained periods of unemployment and relocations around the country; fighting through sexist and misogynistic environments in multiple jobs and municipalities; a career change into volunteerism and non-denominational, faith-based missionary work in the Middle East; a re-entry into government work in Josephine County, then Jackson County, then city manager in 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 extended periods of poverty as a child, “we would not have had clothes without churches” and “the fire department delivered Christmas.”
For all of the degrees, it was life experience that gave her the grit to get here. Her grandma introduced her to “Little Women.” “You’re Jo” she once told young Michelle, a nod to her strong and determined nature.
Amberg, the leader, continues to look forward, continues persevering, continues seeing the possibilities, driven in part by “the hum of the city,” she said. “That energy that gives and takes every day coming through that front door,” she said.
Noel Nash is publisher of The Chronicle.