Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Lessons From Great Mayors

We’ve been writing about great mayors because Memphis has never had one.

With A C Wharton now in the mayor’s office with a mandate for action, he – like most of his predecessors – has an opportunity to be a great mayor. There is little resemblance between Shelby County Government and City of Memphis Government, but his terms as county mayor should give him a head start in setting his vision and the agenda to achieve it.

There is no job harder in any city than its mayor’s. There is no decision that goes unnoticed and there is no decision that is not magnified with the intensity of the faithful watching the color of the smoke coming out of the Vatican chimney. And yet, done well, there is nothing that compares to the impact on the future than a city mayor.

We’ve spotlighted seven mayors in the past week or so who transformed their cities, often righting them in the midst of challenges and setting a strong course for a better future. So what are the lessons that we can learn from these great mayors?


The City Narrative Matters. One essential lesson is that these mayors articulated and embodied the narratives for their cities, and in so doing, they developed cohesion, sense of community and a shared purpose. Effective leaders tell stories, stories that we all of us can see ourselves in.

This may all sound too ethereal, but it is nevertheless grounded deeply in the real world, because a city’s narrative creates sense of place and meaning. “Vibrant communities have a brand narrative that is a compilation of origin, creed, context, symbols and action that attracts people and commerce and consumes resources,” said branding expert Patrick Hanlon.

“Vibrant communities stand for something. Vibrant communities have a lexicon that their members understand. Finally, vibrant communities have a leader…(who) ultimately is responsible for weaving together these strands of civic pride and responsibility.”

Here’s the thing: Memphis doesn’t have a narrative. There is no common story that ties us all together into a community with shared values, symbols and rituals. There is no common narrative that describes what we stand for and what we believe in.


The mayors we profiled seem to understand this, and their stories and their symbolism created a thread that stitched together the fabric of their cities. Mayor Wharton has expressed an understanding of the role and importance of a narrative and story-telling, and because of it, we expect that he will give this narrative brand the attention that it needs.

So what are the other themes that can be taken from the examples of these seven mayors?

Start with a global perspective. Cities compete in a global marketplace of ideas and business, and because regions are the competitive units in this marketplace, these mayors emphasized regional collaboration and set out to end turf wars and self-defeating competition. As Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper said: "Denver doesn't compete anymore with Seattle or San Diego. We're competing with metropolitan Shanghai and metropolitan Bombay. If we don't begin working together at a much higher level, we'll find that not just our grandchildren's jobs but our children's jobs will have gone away."

Know your budget. Every one of these mayors insisted on frank assessments of their city's fiscal state as the baseline for all strategic decisions. Job one was to understand the city's books, and job two was to make sure everyone else understood them, too. The foundation is to be honest and transparent in all financial matters.

Listen. These mayors traveled all over their regions to hear from fellow mayors, businesspeople and constituents. They never forget that they are public servants first and foremost.

Choose your battles. Each of the mayors started with a signature issue -- economic development, improved services, infrastructure upgrades, financial integrity, civic design – that laid the groundwork for broader success.

Never Stop Building Your Team. These mayors hired the best people to head up crucial operations. For example, Mayor Hickenlooper charged his transition team with finding the best people in the nation to head up schools, law enforcement, and planning. Politics didn’t matter. But when he talked about Denver’s progress, he credits his partners, his predecessors, his employees, his advisers, his wife, his parents – everyone but himself. This is no accident. It’s part of his strategy of keeping his team together.

One Word: Leadership. A team of brilliant young data analysts and hard-charging senior managers never substitutes for hands-on executive leadership.
Running in place. Marginal improvements in performance numbers from much harder work may obscure the fact that the system being used is antiquated. Often the entire process needs to be redesigned from the ground up, and a decisive leader can change as much with a memo as he can with an ordinance.


Midtowner said...

Winning a majority of a pathetic turnout in a special election is no mandate.

He'll not get a wide latitude of action from the city council. The city council is neither afraid of him nor in awe of him.

He can, however, win the cooperation of the city council with a cool demeanor and logical arguments ... neither of which were Willie's strong points

Anonymous said...

I disagree with Midtowner that despite the light turnout, this election was unprededented in a strong majority of both white and black together for one candidate. As long as support doesn't erode, the Council members will always have that fact in their heads.

I am convinced that if the turnout had been a record high, that the winning margin would have been similar.

A C is in the catbird's seat right now.

Zippy the giver said...

Most assuredly Memphis DOES have a narrative, a lexicon that the people understand, and a leader. Your new mayor will have to either rise above it and work or run for his life.
You don't want to admit what the narrative that is here, or the lexicon, but, for Memphis to have succeeded at abject fiscal failure, crime, and poverty, there was a leader, a lexicon, a narrative, and a leader, all based in black and white institutionalized bigotry and racism, and the solution was abandoned out of fear of nothing.
The very path that was followed is exactly what led us here and it exists. If you could describe it like it was happening to someone else you can get a glimpse and do something abut it even if it is too late, if not, doom.

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