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Leadership Lessons from Crack Mayor Rob Ford

Mayor Rob Ford

As the late, great Whitney Houston said: “Crack is whack”.  Truthfully, it’s pretty hard to expand or improve upon Ms. Houston’s assessment of this particular issue, which is why it’s taken me a while to extract the deeper lessons that I knew lurked under the sordid surface of the Rob Ford fiasco.

Rob Ford is my mayor. That is, he was inflicted on me by a significant proportion of my fellow Torontonians in our most recent mayoral election.  But I don’t hold it against them; truly we lacked compelling alternatives, and they were all probably in a drunken stupor anyway, so how can I hold them responsible? The point is, while the world held witness to the most surreal, ‘Daily Show’ worthy portion of Mr. Ford’s downward spiral, the good people of Toronto have had to endure actually having him as the mayor of the fourth largest city in North America.  This reality holds some genuinely important lessons about leaders and the organizations that create and empower them, buried as they might be under a fine, white powder.

All the Man That I Need

Rob Ford did not descend from the sky like a swarm of locusts. He’s been a Toronto City Councillor since 2000, serving three consecutive terms representing Ward 2 in Etobicoke North, a diverse suburb within the Greater Toronto Area. Despite the fact that during these years Ford developed a reputation for passionate commentaries sometimes peppered with confrontational and incendiary remarks, he remained popular in his Ward and was known for returning constituent phone calls himself, and often showing up in person to address concerns or complaints.

He ran for mayor as a sort of everyman, with a laser focus on a position of fiscal constraint: “Stop the gravy train”. This relentlessly delivered message appealed to enough Toronto voters to grant him the mayorship in 2010.

How Will I Know

Following his election, a frequent criticism of Ford was that he continued to devote significant portions of time to answering constituent phone calls and following up personally on voter complaints, rather than devote attention to more high-profile, strategic municipal issues. While it seemed that Ford rarely arrived at City Hall before 9 or 10 a.m. his staff frequently indicated that he was engaging in constituent visits before reporting for duty at his office. (Although based on e-mails released today due to a Freedom of Information request, at least some of the time they were wondering where the heck he was too…)

Organizational lesson: Effective individual contribution is not a predictor of leadership aptitude. Your organization’s high-performing software engineer, accountant or nurse is quite possibly not equipped to effectively lead other software engineers, accountants or nurses. We know this, but it is shocking how many organizations forget or ignore it. Technical experts are frequently promoted into leadership roles they are ill suited and ill prepared for. I would argue that the voters of Toronto made this classic error also.

Where Do Broken Hearts Go

Ford’s great unraveling began in earnest when he finally admitted that, despite months of vigorous denials, he had in fact smoked crack cocaine.  But, he was quick to explain (in words now immortalized on everything from t-shirts to valentines), that this indiscretion only occurred because he was, at the time, in one of his drunken stupors. Also, he wanted us to know that this was the extent of his misdeeds. Honestly guys! Except that it wasn’t, and in the weeks to come more alleged ‘incidents’ of misbehavior were reported (or streamed live in the case of his City Council shenanigans and multiple press conferences), making each subsequent apology seem first suspect and then tragically cynical.

For a 90 second montage of many (but definitely not all) of Ford’s apologies check out this excellent Globe and Mail compilation.

Organizational Lesson: Good employees, decent human beings, and especially effective leaders need to be accountable and trustworthy. Surveys and studies show that our organizations are presently suffering from an epidemic of mistrust in leaders, contributing to a disengaged workforce. Given the current obsession with employee engagement, our organizations (and cities) should be waging a fervent, zero-tolerance war against untrustworthy behavior from their leaders. It isn’t good enough to say “Well, she/he is only human.” Leaders should and must be held to a high standard.

Didn’t We Almost Have It All

Ford’s modus operandi as mayor has been pretty similar to the aggressive, ‘with me or against me’ style he perfected as a city councillor. This has not endeared him to his fellow councillors, which is fine when you are a renegade army of one ostensibly standing up for the little guy. As mayor, it turns out to be a less than stellar strategy. Building coalitions, winning support for one’s agenda, and getting the cooperation you need from your peers is, unsurprisingly, critical to being a successful municipal leader. After Ford’s meltdown, and lacking a mechanism to remove him from office, City Council voted to strip him of many of his powers as mayor.

Organizational Lesson: As a leader, if you’ve reached a point where your peers are actively working against you, the gig is up. The idea that people will do what you say just because you’re the boss, freeing you to treat people as expendable if they don’t act the way you want is not going to get you very far. Um, also, if your police force is investigating you (and using surveillance planes), you may want to update your resume…

It’s Not Right But It’s Okay

What ultimately happens to Ford will be up to voters later this year. But regardless of that outcome, it’s safe to say that his term as Mayor already offers lessons for leaders, be they civil or corporate. Those lessons remind us that leaders often fail for remarkably similar reasons – being promoted beyond their ability, loss of trust, or a failure to build relationships – regardless of the sleazy and shocking details associated with their own individual stories of decline.

Image Credit: Shaun Merrit via Flickr Creative Commons

Paragraph headings by Whitney

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2 Comments Post a comment
  1. Jane, you did it again. I’m sitting here with my Starbucks and there goes my tea again out my nose! Can’t believe you incorporated Whitney Houston lines into a Rob Ford rant. You’re the best!

    I guess if that’s the case:

    Everybody is searching for a hero
    People need someone to look up to (credit to Dolly Parton)

    Apparently Rob Ford hasn’t fulfilled our needs. We need to find a different hero.

    January 24, 2014
    • Thanks Bonni. I’d like to think that if it were possible, Whitney would give Rob Ford a very stern talking to right now!

      January 25, 2014

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