Winging It

Hype makes right at the center for the new west.

"Phil views the center as a conveyor--not a place that people stay forever," says Robert Maynes, director of the center's Washington office, who's announced plans to leave this spring. (The Washington operation is being scaled back, Burgess says, so that the center can devote more resources to state and local government issues.)

Burgess concedes his management style can be messy, even "volatile." Others suggest that it can be downright intimidating, and that the center's revolving door of staff and fellows reveals more about Burgess than his surfing strategy. Several sources say Burgess has a habit of berating staff and even senior fellows at length about their work or their failure to bring in new funding sources.

"You never knew where you stood," says one. "Phil could be complimentary one day and in a fury the next. He frequently reduced staff to tears--and not just the females, either."

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Burgess doesn't see himself as a particularly demanding boss, "but I guess I'm not a warm fuzzy," he says. "I come from an aca-demic environment, where you sit around a table and criticize methodology and call a spade a spade. I believe in high-feedback systems."

The high feedback sometimes spills over into Burgess's performance at conferences and public forums. He's been known to get into loud confrontations with speakers with whom he disagrees--not just theatrics but displays of genuine emotion--that some colleagues find embarrassing. "I've seen it get to the point where people in the audience would actually get uncomfortable," says one observer. "He'd be yelling, just cowing them into submission."

Another associate recalls a health-care conference a few years ago, at a time when the center was seeking to position itself as a leading voice in the debate over federal reform. "Burgess just went off," he says. "He started telling experts in the field that they didn't know anything. As the saying goes, he went postal."

Patricia Limerick says Burgess uses "strategies of proclamation and assertion" in his public addresses. "My personal experience is, when you try that, a number of spines in the audience stiffen. The people already with you say, 'Oh, boy,' but you don't bring around the people who have questions or doubt."

Burgess, however, makes no apologies for his bully-boy persona. When invited to speak, he says, "I'm more like the football coach at halftime than the first-grade teacher. I am personally engaged. I like what I do. I believe what I say."

Even his toughest critics acknowledge that Burgess may be the center's greatest asset. His personal interests and enthusiasms contribute at least as much to the think tank's agenda as any corporate influence, and his boundless energy--spending weekends in Maryland and much of the week on the road, surfacing at the Denver office for only a few days a month--rivals that of the Energizer bunny. Yet he may also be the operation's greatest liability, since his role raises inescapable questions about the center's finances and its credibility.

"The real problem with the US West money is that Phil Burgess is on their payroll and not the center's," says one former think-tanker. "When the head of the organization isn't on the payroll, then he's not as concerned as he should be about the financial picture. I would never be on a board that supported that situation."

Burgess doesn't see the problem. What's good for the West--for his West--isn't that what it's all about?

"Not everyone agrees with us, but I think most people see us as independent," he says. "If we couldn't win our spurs by having independence and credibility, we wouldn't have anything.

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