New LeadingAge board chair declares it's time to play ball

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James M. Berklan
James M. Berklan

Several thousand LeadingAge members got their first look at new board chairman Steve Fleming on Monday, and if initial meetings are any indication, it's going to be a wonderful relationship.

A handsome North Carolinian with a polished, folksy speaking style, Fleming charmed the expansive New Orleans audience. He formally introduced himself and laid out his game plan for the association at the opening session of its annual convention, and the crowd ate it up.

Fleming officially takes office Jan. 1, when he will succeed Kathryn Roberts, who is finishing up her two-year term.

The president and CEO of the Well•Spring Group, Fleming is no stranger to leading — or making important calls (we'll get to that part later). Yet, he seemed both surprised and a little embarrassed when the 5,000 in attendance rose in a standing ovation to endorse his election Monday.

Perhaps it was the tables-turned nature of the moment. Fleming has been a major-college football official for 10 years, and it's not likely he nor his standout crew had ever faced a massive ovation — let alone one with smiling people.

Smiles were plentiful Monday, as were numerous football and sports-related metaphors and analogies from Fleming. But fear not, followers: He has taken leave from the football reffing job while holding the board chairmanship, and he is intent on focusing on the tasks at hand. That doesn't mean his competitive juices will be any less, however.

He offered caregiving and business strategies, and he also got personal. He shared how his proud father has been spending down a life's earnings, facing an uncertain future, as so many seniors do. This is where Fleming's rallying message found roots.

“For too long we at LeadingAge have been playing defense, now it's time for us to focus on offense,” he declared.

He urged LeadingAge into a new era of stronger advocacy to combat the “constant” regulatory burdens and funding shortfalls. He called for a concise, clear and transparent strategy.

Just like in athletics, practice is needed for any skill, Fleming explained. To that end, he urged members to lobby public officials and elected representatives not just once but often. Invite them to visit your facilities and caregiving communities, he stressed. Get to know the officials' staff members.

And then he stepped away from the podium. It was a telling moment because it launched a tale that showed his “true” Appalachian roots. He spoke of his early career at a Quaker community, and meeting a resident who was a good gardener. Fleming engaged him and asked advice on how to grow his own green beans, a staple of the region.

The first crop wound up with “runners” that led to tangled messes of plants on the ground and a weak harvest. After further consultation with the wise old green thumb, Fleming learned to create a trellis that would lead the bean vines up and clear of one another. They flourished.

“LeadingAge is our trellis for growth,” Fleming explained. “It will help us ‘run' less and climb more.” A “bumper crop” will ensue, he predicted.

“I urge you to engage. Climb, grow,” he exhorted.

Referring to occasional displayed photos of himself in a striped uniform, including one with an inflamed football coach expressing his displeasure, Fleming resolutely told the assemblage that it's time to step off the sidelines and onto the national playing field.

“It's Game Day," he announced, "and our turn to change the way America ages."

And also the dawning of a new day at LeadingAge.

To read Senior Editor Elizabeth Newman's insightful full profile on Steve Fleming, click here.

Follow Editor James M. Berklan @JimBerklan.


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Daily Editors' Notes

McKnight's Daily Editors' Notes features commentary on the latest in long-term care news and issues. Entries are written by Editorial Director John O'Connor, Editor James M. Berklan, Senior Editor Elizabeth Newman and Staff Writer Marty Stempniak.