Lessons in Executive Leadership

Living in Philadelphia, one can’t help but make some connection between a young and vibrant president elected on a mandate for change and a young and vibrant mayor elected on a mandate for change. So I could not help but think both locally and nationally when it came to this recent article by Phil Goldsmith, former managing director for the City of Philadelphia: “Mayor at Mid-term: How's He Doing?”

To maintain a sense of neutrality, given my work life’s close connection with the Nutter Administration as far as our various engagements with the City, I won’t say to what extent I agree with Mr. Goldsmith’s interpretations and conclusions. But I do think he highlights some leadership do’s and don’ts that I would agree with, and it makes for stimulating discussion to evaluate whether Mayor Nutter or President Obama have effectively heeded them:

1. Executive leadership is not a popularity contest. Which is dissonant with the fact that campaigning is. A majority of people voted for Nutter/Obama because they like him; and, even if they now disagree with his performance, they continue to like him. But executive leadership means making tough choices, which may upset individual groups or even a majority of people. So needing everyone or even most everyone to like you is a bad trait for executive leaders.

2. Look forward, not back. Again, dissonant with the fact that effective campaigning involves caricaturing the current administration to demonstrate the need for change. But once in office, an identity needs to be forged that isn’t “I’m not like the other guy.” We’ve already forgotten the other guy; we want to know, “Who are you?”

3. Process vs. projects. I’m as process-oriented as they come, but executive leaders need to create momentum via signature initiatives, which are reflective of the ethos of the moment and which are tied together by some unifying and motivating theme. Where process comes into play is making sure those under you know their roles, don’t step on each others’ toes, and have ample room and resources to get stuff done. (I’ll withhold, at least in this public forum, my take on whether Obama having so many czars facilitates or impedes inter-departmental cooperation, or to what extent Nutter’s top-ranking officials do or do not collaborate where issues naturally intersect agencies.)

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