By Guest Columnist JEREMY C. GARLINGTON, an executive leadership consultant who is based in Atlanta
How many lives do you get as a public leader? Nine, like Felix the Cat? Six, like Hillary Clinton? Three, like Donald Trump?
Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed represents that rare modern breed still on his first life, politically and humanly speaking. His resume is impressive: Former rising star as a state senator; two-term mayor of Atlanta who led efforts to redo the city’s charter; frequent advocate for President Obama’s agenda with an ambitious eye towards higher office. Reed’s track record shows him to be effective, yet he is perceived as highly combative, divisive and often unconcerned about public opinion. Some insiders call him thin-skinned despite his image as an imposing, articulate figure with strong conviction.
Full disclosure: I’ve only observed him from afar at events, including an honorary dinner for Ambassador Andrew Young in 2014.
Random meltdown or defining moment?
Something changed when Reed took to the airwaves a couple weeks ago in front of Underground Atlanta. Reed was not only visibly angry at his ousted airport chief, Miguel Southwell, but Hizzoner also threatened to “ruin his career” based on some non-disclosed information about Southwell’s firing. The ouster had followed some questionable moves by the appointee, including closing a key security line during busy season.
Threatening to ruin someone is a heavy statement, one the rest of us – or at least the sensible among us, which hopefully is still the majority – would think twice about before making in private, much less in public.
Instead of challenging Reed head on, this column will attempt to put the tirade into better perspective.
First, the public arena has changed considerably since our mothers and fathers were running after us to correct bad behavior. It’s now completely fair game not only to call each other every name in the book, but to underscore the speech with angry, and at times harmful, speech that’s guaranteed to get attention. This is not entirely because of Donald Trump’s candidacy for president, although some of his antics have definitely sent things over the edge. A lot of people, including our leaders at times, are fed up with systems and each other.
Regrettably there’s no well-heeled special interest group called Common Manners to call out and hold those in power accountable despite what at least one Atlanta TV station claims as a tag line. The regression below the mean has been going on for some time, and a lot of us have turned the other cheek or simply quit giving a rip.
That’s the second biggest and main change: Public leaders rarely face accountability for their actions, especially when so many of us are checked out or choose to be spoon-fed by second-hand reports via Facebook. The only thing a citizen can really do to penalize an elected official is to withhold votes, or vote for someone else. Even then the perception is the system is rigged.
Accountability is a moot point for Reed, who will soon finish up his second term. Rather than embrace his remaining time with grace, he feels entitled to destroy the career of someone he appointed in the first place.
In Hizzoner’s defense, the ousted party has lawyered up to fight what he views as wrongful termination. Surprisingly, this mini-drama fizzled out after Reed’s outburst, which only confirms the behavior to be strong, resolute, and dare we say, effective, according to the world’s standards.
The behavior is what makes politics so detestable to the general public. It’s not the money, power and ego or heated speech. It’s the fact that fewer appear to view their elected office as a privilege to serve, and more as a pulpit to glorify self or offer up their own distorted version of reality. Humility has given way permanently to hubris. Every private battle is now played out publicly in front of everyone’s eyes and ears. Me, not we, rules the day.
There’s no immediate antidote here, but anyone who aspires to lead would be wise to stop and reflect on what the responsibility requires.
Ken Blanchard and co-author, Chick-fil-A executive Mark Miller, coined an acronym in their leadership book, “The Secret.” The book’s theme can be summed up by the following: Leadership is service. Here’s a refresher, with an extra letter added:
- Stands for see the future. In other words, the vision thing, or being able to see around corners.
- Engage and develop others.
- Reinvent continuously.
- Value results and relationships vs. transactions at all costs.
- Embody values.
- Do the right thing, and when you don’t, admit fault and move on.
Delivering on all of these is a tall order, but at last check, leadership remains a privilege – not an entitlement. (Note: Somehow mouthing off in the media didn’t make the list.)