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Hard economic times will try new leaders

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In the ThinkTech-Hawaii Venture Capital Association recovery and transformation program last month, developer Dick Gushman spoke of the extraordinary changes in Hawaii’s leadership. He listed 22 major leadership changes, including new leaders in the big banks, the three utilities, Alexander & Baldwin, the James Campbell Co. and Kamehameha Schools, University of Hawaii, Chaminade, Hawaii Pacific University and the Department of Education. Many are from elsewhere.

Soon enough, we’ll elect a new governor, lieutenant governor, Honolulu mayor, legislators and a congressional representative. We just got a new chief justice, and there will be changes in the Hawaiian organizations, Kamehameha Schools, Department of Hawaiian Home Lands and Office of Hawaiian Affairs. It’s also statistically likely we’ll have a new senator in the next few years.

As Gushman said, the scope and velocity of these changes is unprecedented, and their cumulative effect will be complex. It’s clear that we live in transitional times, and that this new generation of leaders will inherit the burdens and baggage we have accrued, and they will be tested as few before them.

We need to move to self-reliance in energy and food, but those initiatives also have their costs. Clean energy requires improvements to the grid, arguably including a billion-dollar undersea cable. Diversified agriculture requires irrigation infrastructure and costly incentives to encourage farmers.

Where are our new leaders going to find this money? Just as we’ve never had such a plenary transition in state leadership, we’ve never had such a convergence in financial demand. It’s the perfect storm, and they’re going to have to come up with some great solutions to re-energize our mono-economy.

Tax incentives or not, they’re going to have to broaden the private sector to rebuild the tax base and pay these costs. And they’re going to have to find a way to dramatically reduce the price of housing so our three-job work force will be left with some disposable income and won’t wind up on the beach.

They’ll need to find a way to build diversified agriculture when landowners and banks are reluctant to provide land and loans to farmers. They’ll need to get the public to invest in clean energy even if it costs more than oil costs, and to buy local produce even when big boxes sell offshore produce at a fraction of the price.

These new leaders can either take us through the storm or put us on the rocks. They’ll need a white-hot focus on both diversification and discipline. They’ll need to be towers of strength and clarity faithful to the common good, and remind us daily of where we’re going, even if the voyage is painful.

If Dick Gushman’s new leaders can do that, they’ll be heroes in a new chapter for Hawaii. If not, we’d all better learn to live on the beach. A good conversation was started at the recovery and transformation program, and we must hope they will work with each other to address the gauntlet of these complexities. That program, including Gushman’s wake-up keynote, will be available on and

Jay Fidell, a longtime business lawyer, founded ThinkTech Hawaii, a digital media company that reports on Hawaii’s tech and energy sectors of the economy. He can be reached at


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