Leadership Loser Oscar Goodman: Mayor of Las Vegas ... or King of Denial?

Last Updated Sep 15, 2010 6:39 AM EDT

Every now and then you come across an interview with a leader whose denial is so staggering, it stops you in your tracks. Anyone remember Ted Koppel's conversation with Michael Brown, then-director of FEMA, at the height of Hurricane Katrina? Here's a new one I've just encountered: the mayor of Las Vegas, Oscar Goodman, (not) talking about foreclosures, unemployment, and water.
Currently, Vegas has the highest home-foreclosure rate in the nation. At 14 percent, it also has the highest unemployment rate in the nation. But Goodman, it appears, is completely relaxed. Asked by the BBC's Steven Sacker whether or not the city's expansion and concentration on the leisure industry might have been ill-advised, Goodman cannot see a problem anywhere:
Goodman: The truth of the matter is that the expansion was good for us.... When the hotels were being planned, business was booming. It was a feat! It is almost biblical in its terms.

Sacker: But the key to sustainable business is to understand when to curtail the risk.

Goodman: I don't think anybody saw this coming. It's not our problem. We have the greatest infrastructure in the world. We've got the best hotels.

Simultaneously, Goodman denies that there is a problem -- and denies that he bears any responsibility. A responsible leader would acknowledge the crisis and attempt to put in place a planned response. But Goodman is the perfect un-leader: denying both facts and responsibility. It's a position he adopts with ease because he's used it before: when he denied the presence of organized crime and when he denied the existence of prostitution in "his" town.

Gambling is now legal in 48 states, and Internet gambling's on the rise, likely to be legalized, and widely available in glitzy resorts like Macao. But strangely none of this bothers Goodman at all. That these competing forces will decrease revenues while increasing unemployment doesn't seem to keep him awake at night either.

It gets worse when Sacker pursues the touchy subject of sustainability. Las Vegas draws its water from Lake Mead, whose water levels have fallen more than 100 feet in the last ten years. The city faces a serious water shortage. But Goodman isn't even remotely fazed. He talks proudly of the LEED-certified government buildings he's commissioned and the alternative-fuel government cars his fleet will feature. The idea that the Strip itself might constitute an affront to the planet never crosses his mind. Somehow water isn't really such a big problem to this desert-city mayor:

Goodman: Right now we are banking water in Arizona. We are talking about having desalination plants either in California or off their coast or in Mexico.... I would like to take water out of the Columbia in Oregon and Washington and have it piped down here.
Even MGM President Jim Murren has acknowledged there's a problem. "All the casino resorts and property developers have ignored the obvious fact that we live in the desert," he told the Daily Mail. "It's hot as hell and the water's declining." But Mayor Goodman isn't worried:
Goodman: The worst that happens is we have to pay for the water. We're banking water.
Goodman is counting on his well-placed friends, his baseball bat, casino revenues (which are declining) and some bonhomie to take the recession and climate change away. Although I've studied willful blindness the world over, Goodman's takes my breath away. He won't pay attention to foreclosures or the unemployed, and he doesn't think there might be a problem if the price of water goes through the roof. Why do I call him an un-leader? Because true leaders have the courage to stare the facts in the face and plan for the worst. Un-leaders just stick their heads in the sand and pretend there isn't a problem. I guess the one thing Goodman really has going for him is that there's plenty of sand in Nevada.

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    Margaret Heffernan has been CEO of five businesses in the United States and United Kingdom. A speaker and writer, her most recent book Willful Blindness was shortlisted for the Financial Times Best Business Book 2011. Visit her on www.MHeffernan.com.