02 December 2011

What We Have Here is a Failure of Leadership

As a friend of mine often says, “you’re never a complete failure; you can always be used as a bad example.” The latest instalment of the ongoing soap opera, [Toronto Mayor] Rob Ford vs. The Star, has our not-tiny, far-from-perfect mayor instructing Torontonians to join him in boycotting Toronto’s – and Canada’s – largest circulation newspaper. His office will not even share official city communications with Star reporters, because the mayor does not like they way the newspaper’s (mostly critical coverage) of him.

One could easily be critical of Mayor Ford for his fundamental lack of understanding of the role of the fourth estate in civil society and governance. (I’m sure that Ford is not at all familiar with the works of Thomas Jefferson who, in 1799 wrote that, “our citizens may be deceived for awhile, and have been deceived; but as long as the presses can be protected, we may trust to them for light.”) Denying access to particular segments of the press – and more generally, the massmedia – is a favourite tactic of demagogic politicians who know that today’s political media live and die by their access to said demagogues… err.. politicians. Typically, it is mostly right-wing politicians who would prefer the banana-republic or totalitarian versions of a press corps, if not state controlled, then certainly state appeasing.

From where I sit, however, Rob Ford is creating himself as a really good, bad example of leadership. One of the most important aspects of effective, contemporary leadership is the creation of a culture of inquiry. This is an organizational culture where everything, and everyone, is subject to critical questioning about whether or not the organization is steering itself on a trajectory consistent with its collective values and organizational intent with respect to the effects it creates and enables throughout its environment. In a Valence Theory conception, a city is indeed an organization in which it is vitally important that conversations about values, intentions, and effects are robust, thoughtful, engaging, and inclusive. It is not sufficient to create meaningless town hall meetings in which politicos give very limited airtime to people, but ignore all those who express contrary opinions. It is not acceptable to claim carte blanche with respect to all (especially ideologically driven) policy initiatives via a majority mandate obtained during a general election. And, it is unconscionably wrong to force the institutions that the populace trust to shed light on political machinations to “receive Ford’s releases from kind reporters at competing media outlets.

Instead, contemporary leaders should welcome the type of critical scrutiny they receive from even the most partisan and seemingly biased, opposing media outlets. In a healthy culture of inquiry, leaders can reflect on whether there are indeed kernels of insight that can inform their ongoing learning and future policy directions that they can obtain from these otherwise annoying sources. This, of course, applies to any organizational leader, not just public figures. In this sense, it should be a daily ritual for a leader to look at her/himself in the mirror and ask, what and who have I missed in my thinking, my analysis, my plan?

Leaders who don’t invite naysayers to their table – indeed, those who slam the door in their faces – are missing important guidance for a complex world.

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