Larger-than-Life Leadership Lessons from a Large City Mayor

Last Updated Apr 28, 2011 11:00 AM EDT

What are we to make of a leader like William Donald Schaefer who died the other day at age 89?

A career politician with a fifty year history of elected service, Schaefer was a larger than life character who transformed his hometown of Baltimore from an aging city on the downswing to a vibrant city with a revitalized downtown. As a brash, outspoken and pushy mayor, Schaefer seems more in common with big city mayors of a century ago. What he wanted he got and in the process, he was re-elected four times (not including the two terms he spent as governor).

Schaefer is not the kind of leader most of us in leadership development field write about these days. And that is too bad because if we trace the arc of his career, we can discover four useful traits that leaders today can put into action and achieve great things.

Bullheaded Pragmatism: When Schaefer became mayor in 1971, Baltimore was the kind of city people avoided due to its crumbling housing, crime rates, and sense of hopelessness. Schaefer bulldozed the blighted, invited urban homesteaders and got federal funding for his projects. He saw a problem and he tackled it. Every leader needs to what he or she can to make a positive difference.

A Grand Vision: Today Baltimore is a thriving city and a bustling tourist center. Its waterfront boasts Harborplace, a retail and restaurant complex, that is much admired. It takes vision to look beyond the problems of the day to envision a future like that. Such was Schaeffer's outlook. It is important for leaders to think big as a means of creating common purpose.

Scrupulously Diligent: Schaefer was a big city mayor with a small town mindset. He patrolled for potholes, looked for crime spots, and found ways to make bureaucracy work for people instead of against them. Leaders need to use their power to make things happen.

A Sense of Showmanship: Schaefer saw public office as a form of public theater. When the city's new aquarium fell behind schedule, he donned a turn of the 20th century bathing costume complete with straw boater and jumped in holding a rubber ducky. People need to see their leaders in action, and if they have a sense of showmanship, it can enhance their personal appeal.

Schaefer had his faults. He was at times insensitive to minorities and to women. He marginalized all who disagreed with him. His Washington Post obituary opined, "he never tolerated dissent and rarely consulted legislators." To him, compromise meant "indecision." In short, his leadership style was my way or the highway.

Worse, as his New York Times obit noted â€" and viewers of David Simon's police dramas set in Baltimore, Homicide and The Wire know full well â€" Baltimore still has problems with crime and corruption as well as poverty.

Executives like Schaefer remind us that leadership is not a ticket to sainthood. His personal style turned people off and as a resulted, alienated people who he should have been serving. At the same time, Schaefer is the kind of leader who went looking for problems so he could fix them. With an outsized ego, you might say he succeeded in spite of it.

Schaefer is not the kind of leader you (or I) would want to work for, but he is the kind of leader that teaches us that power applied for the public good can make the impossible possible. His hometown paper, The Baltimore Sun, said he "changed the way the city felt about itself." That is something every leader should take to heart. You need to make those you follow your lead believe in themselves.

John Baldoni is an internationally recognized leadership development consultant, executive coach, author, and speaker. In 2011 Leadership Gurus International ranked John no. 11 on its list of the world's top leadership experts. John is the author of nine books on leadership including his Lead By Example: 50 Ways Great Leaders Inspire Results and Lead Your Boss: The Subtle Art of Managing Up. Readers are welcome to visit John's website, www.johnbaldoni.com

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