Donald Fry: A 23-year old leadership lesson from the Persian Gulf

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By Donald C. Fry

As elected leaders face the challenges of deteriorating government budget situations in Maryland and in local jurisdictions across the state, most have warned their constituents that “tough choices” lay ahead as they decide where to allocate limited financial resources and, conversely, where not to allocate them.

Few in history have faced a tougher choice in allocating limited resources than did U.S. Navy Captain Paul X. Rinn in the spring of 1988 as he stood on his sinking guided missile frigate, the USS Samuel B. Roberts, after it had hit an Iranian mine that caused tremendous damage to the ship deployed in the Persian Gulf.

Capt. Rinn, whose foot was broken by the force of the explosion, faced two equally perilous threats. His ship was taking on water fast through a 20-foot hole in its hull caused by the mine. Also, a ferocious fire created by the mine explosion engulfed the aft portion of the ship.

“It was a bizarre experience,” Rinn said during a lecture on leadership last August at the Naval Postgraduate School. “I could look up and see the fire burning above me and my shoes were filling with water at the same time.”

That’s when Rinn made the ultimate tough call. He ordered the ship’s crew to stop fighting the fire and to concentrate on the water that was pouring into the ship’s auxiliary machinery room. “You have to save that bulkhead or we’re going to lose the ship,” he recalled telling his crew.

It wasn’t easy but, following Rinn’s orders, the crew slowly won back the ship. They contained the flooding and restored power to the ship, which then enabled them to concentrate on the fire and, ultimately, to save the ship.

We’re not foundering in the Persian Gulf, but there are lessons to be learned from Rinn’s experience 23 years ago and half a world away.

Even after a devastating recession, Maryland and its local jurisdictions cannot yet be characterized as a sinking ship, though a few other states have been described that way. But from a fiscal standpoint, it’s fair to say that Maryland’s state and local governments are taking on water.

Governor Martin O’Malley, state lawmakers, county executives and mayors across the state face decisions on where to best deploy increasingly limited financial resources despite what appear to them as equally serious competing funding challenges.

Every looming need or issue, from environmental preservation to public health to economic development, has vocal and aggressive advocates communicating the virtues of their causes to policymakers.

All of these causes are worthy of attention. But, as Captain Rinn did on the slanting deck of the USS Roberts, our leaders must decide on the best order of priorities to which our government’s financial resources should be deployed.

With that in mind business advocates in Maryland should be heartened to hear pledges made by Governor O’Malley, Baltimore City Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and others that they will place a strong focus on the deployment of fiscal resources to job creation and economic development.

Of course, our leaders must follow up their pledges by ensuring that government sets a welcoming and nurturing tone toward business and by maintaining decisive fiscal commitments to key prerequisites to a healthy business environment. Such prerequisites include an educated workforce, superior infrastructure – particularly transportation infrastructure – and strategic government investments and incentives that leverage strong business growth.

There will be many other “tough choices” ahead as our state recovers from a debilitating recession. But these are the right priorities for 2011 and for the immediate future. They relate directly to restoring the power of the private sector, which is the engine that will ultimately right Maryland’s fiscal ship and that will drive our future economic success and quality of life.

Donald C. Fry is president and CEO of the Greater Baltimore Committee. He is a regular contributor to Center Maryland.

Previous Center Maryland columns by Donald C. Fry:

Gauging the business contribution to state government funding

How the state lost its way on transportation funding

Budget proposal will be first big 2011 defining moment for lawmakers

GBC to lawmakers: ‘Make job creation and business growth top session priority’

Helping city’s new prosecutor implement a vision

A culture of ‘giving back’ lives in Maryland’s business community

Budget challenges will test government’s capacity for strategic planning

Facing the disconnect over the concept of ‘business climate’

Tax commission delivers refreshing change of pace

‘Reform’ commission to mull tax increase for Maryland corporations

No tsunami in Maryland, but voters deliver ripple of transition

Why isn’t transportation infrastructure crisis on lawmakers’ radar?

Market expert tells a pre-Halloween scary story

Entrepreneurs provide inspiration in a recession

Military is driving Maryland’s anticipated biggest economic spurt in 60 years

MedImmune CEO frames bright future for bioscience

Making transportation a top-tier priority

Primary voters in a mood for transition

Reading Maryland's fiscal tea leaves

Getting beyond sound bites and bumper stickers

Biotech tax credit more popular than ever, but the ‘rock-concert’ lines are gone

Bad timing for upcoming business tax report

For economic indicators, the ‘whipsaw’ effect continues

Do census data foretell a Baltimore city population rebound?

Remember the value of business after the election

New report ranks Baltimore among stronger regions to weather the recession

New living wage proposal: wrong idea, wrong time for Baltimore

Northeast needs more attention from federal rail planners

New national report has familiar ring for Maryland bioscience advocates

New report underscores Maryland’s work force development challenges

State’s health initiative: a ‘win-win’ for employers and their workforces

As Baltimore hikes taxes, are state’s counties next?

After the ‘fiber from heaven’ scramble, what’s next?

BRAC growth no longer a future event – it’s happening now

Economic development is a contact sport

Despite the recession, bioscience growth still percolates in Baltimore

State stumbles in enacting new education collective bargaining process

Wind power has potential in Maryland, but solar emerges as early renewable option

It's not good to be clueless in cyberspace

Amid fiscal shuffle, Maryland lawmakers pass measures to spur business growth

Thankfully, Baltimore leads with substance over style in luring Google

Leave damaging transportation provisions out of the budget

Amended budget continues recession-induced fund shifts and stimulus rescue

General Assembly setting stage for combined reporting push in 2011

Wrong timing for proposal to change Baltimore City school board

Baltimore City isn’t alone in facing pension funding challenges

A government investment program that delivers

Proposed transportation fund raid -- a bad habit continues

Where's the outrage over crime?

Small business is where innovation lives
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Donald C. Fry has been the president and CEO of the Greater Baltimore Committee (GBC), the central Maryland region's most prominent organization of business and civic leaders, since November 2002.


Under Don’s leadership, the GBC is recognized as a knowledgeable and highly credible business voice in the Baltimore region, Annapolis and Washington, D.C. on policy issues and competitive challenges facing Maryland. Its mission is to apply private-sector leadership to strengthening the business climate and quality of life in the region and state.


Fry served as GBC executive vice president from 1999 to 2002. From 1980 to 1999 Fry was engaged in a private law practice in Harford County. During this time he also served in the Maryland General Assembly. He is one of only a handful of legislators to have served on each of the major budget committees of the General Assembly.


Serving in the Senate of Maryland from 1997 to 1998, Fry was a member of the Budget and Taxation Committee. As a member of the House of Delegates from 1991 to 1997 Fry served on the Ways and Means Committee and on the Appropriations Committee.


Fry is a 1979 graduate of the University of Baltimore School of Law. He earned a B.S. in political science from Frostburg State College.