Life in Rob Ford’s Toronto is at once the best of times and the worst of times, for those of us with an interest in leadership. It is the worst of times because those of us with an interest in leadership enjoy seeing it done well. But it is also—in an admittedly self-serving sense—the “best” of times, because Ford’s abysmal leadership serves as an object lesson in how not to lead, and reminds everyone of just how important leadership really is.
What does an organization—whether it is a city or a corporation—need from a leader? What does Ford have or lack that a business should want in a CEO?
First, you want a leader with vision. Even his detractors have to admit that Ford definitely has that. And it’s what got him elected. Plenty of smart people voted for him because they liked the policy direction he promised to take—or, at least, they liked it better than the alternatives they had been offered. A leader has to have a sense of where he or she wants to lead you. Why would anyone follow someone who isn’t going anywhere you want to go?
Second, though, you want a leader with the organizational skills and the people skills to implement that vision. A leader, in other words, needs more than ideas. Ideas are cheap; the talents required to implement them aren’t. Key among those talents, when it comes to implementing ideas in any reasonably complex organizational setting, is an aptitude for working with people. A leader needs to get along with others. You don’t need to be a devotee of “servant leadership” or an adherent to the notion of “leading from behind” to recognize that leadership typically requires a sensitive appreciation of the talents, motives and desires of a team of people. And it requires a willingness to put in the effort required to find ways to turn varied and often divergent interests into a shared vision. To say that Rob Ford lacks capacity in this regard is to understate the problem.
But vision and people skills are, in a sense, table stakes: you need those things just to get the boat headed in the right direction and to keep it more-or-less on course. But what about when waters are rough? Anyone can captain a boat on calm waters, but the waters of the corporate and political worlds are rarely calm. So the third thing you want is someone with the capacity to keep things cool and keep the mood constructive when times get tough. You need, in other words, someone who is good in a crisis because crisis is almost inevitable. And even those who were entranced by Rob Ford’s promise to “stop the gravy train” have to admit that their mayor is not—most emphatically not—a man who shows grace under pressure.
Toronto is going through a rough time. The city will surely emerge from it. We’ll elect a new mayor and before long Rob Ford will be relegated to YouTube clips of monologues by Jon Stewart and Jimmy Fallon. The risk in all this is that we will fail to learn anything from it. In particular, there has been too much focus on the man himself. And to be sure, there is plenty to criticize there. As the National Post’s Andrew Coyne recently put it, Ford is a man of “limitless ego and unformed character.” We need to get beyond the individual. Every thinking person watching the fiasco that is currently Toronto’s City Hall needs to be asking not just “when will it end?” but also “what can we learn from it?”
Chris MacDonald is director of the Jim Pattison Ethical Leadership Program at the Ted Rogers School of Management at Ryerson University in Toronto.