The Leadership Test in Baltimore…and Philadelphia

Mayors in times of crisis have to be citizen leaders who share the stage, listen, and insist on moving forward

The Leadership Test in Baltimore…and Philadelphia

Mayors in times of crisis have to be citizen leaders who share the stage, listen, and insist on moving forward

Jeremy Nowak
Jeremy Nowak

When we elect a mayor we make a difficult hiring decision. The winner becomes chief executive of a city whose people and institutions range from the most globally connected to those isolated by multi-generational poverty and an underground economy that often populates the prison system.

Increasingly the divide between those worlds is dramatic. It was striking to watch television images of a few East Baltimore buildings burn a mile from Johns Hopkins Hospital, one of the world’s finest healthcare and research centers.

We do not know when the test of local crisis leadership will come, how a mayor will react, and how their reaction will play on the big stage of national media, if in fact it comes to that. Local journalists have been trying to get Philadelphia mayoral candidates to react to Baltimore and say how they would handle a similar situation.

None of what I read makes me feel one candidate out distances the others in his or her understanding of those events or how to handle them. Perhaps if you are a candidate, this is one of those just do no harm answer situations. And hopefully we will never have to find out who’s best equipped for such a crisis.

Great leaders enable leaders and not followers. Baltimore Mayor Rawlings-Blake does not have to command or preach. She has to listen and relate. And she has to enable civil society to become more powerful by expanding the platform of leadership. There’s a lesson in that challenge for the next mayor of Philadelphia.

But this column keeps asking whether the right executive temperament is showing up yet in the election. It will be key to the city’s future. One of the characteristics of big city leadership is to have one foot in the present and one foot in the future, ever mindful of where the city has to go to improve.

In a crisis like the one in Baltimore, it is the most important balancing act of leadership: to both focus on resolving what is at hand and pointing to what has to happen in the future.

It takes an unusually mature personality to do all of that: tough on law-breakers; empathetic to the family of the young man that died; concerned about police misconduct without drawing premature conclusions; concerned about the welfare of police who are on the front lines of protecting life and property; worried about the loss of life and property in the neighborhoods. Most of us cannot manage all of these disparate viewpoints at once, let alone in front of a camera.

A number of media voices decided that Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake  failed the leadership test at least initially; that she was not decisive enough or clear enough, either with respect to her comments about the investigation into the death of Freddie Gray or with respect to controlling the riots.

From the perspective of last week, the criticisms are understandable. She did not appear to be present enough, a primary rule of crisis management. Nor did she always speak to the citizens of Baltimore in a way that gave them comfort regarding her ability to take charge. Tough language after the fact of an incident—calling rioters “thugs”—feels good, but it is no substitute for operational decisiveness that defines the boundaries of acceptable behavior before the fact.

But it may be that over the next few weeks we will re-assess the job she did. Perhaps the balance she sought between de-escalation and law enforcement was the right one.  It is hard to know because we do not really know what would have happened had she and the police command acted differently.  And none of us know all of what she is doing behind the scenes.

Nor do we know yet what will happen after the investigation and any follow up legal proceedings with respect to the Freddie Gray case. As with Ferguson, this is a police-community crisis that may have a very long shelf life.

Her real leadership test may be just beginning. Over the next several weeks she and her team have to engage the most organized and effective parts of Baltimore civil society in the neighborhoods of West and East Baltimore where the riots took place. She has to spend time with faith institutions, school associations, civic groups and business alliances in those neighborhoods.  She has to attend house meetings.

She does not have to command or preach. She has to listen and relate. And she has to enable civil society to become more powerful by expanding the platform of leadership. She will have to share leadership with authentic local leaders; otherwise the vacuum is filled by the loudest but not necessarily the most constructive voices.

Great leaders enable leaders and not followers. This is sometimes not the default instinct of politicians who often fear autonomous leadership, outside of their control. That is why we have to hope that those relationships are already, at least partially, in place.

The leaders of those East and West Baltimore communities are the people that live and work there and are accountable to others for their actions. They must quickly take the stage from the drive-by anger and the media flurry that will leave Baltimore to Baltimoreans as the crisis leaves the national front page.

Today Baltimore needs more and not less civic leadership. Real leaders are the counterforce to those that would use the terrible death of Freddie Gray as an opportunity to loot and burn. But they are also the voices that will see through the investigation and prosecution of wrongdoing in the Gray death.

We already saw some of that leadership in action, in an organic way, following the first night of violence. Clergy marched for peace, a local group of step dancers performed outdoors as people gathered, there were musicians playing, and there were neighborhood people cleaning up and urging others to obey the curfew.

It is never only the thin blue line of policing that maintains order. If we have to always rely only on that, then a society has failed. It is the informal and formal organization of families, service groups, and a myriad of associations that have to function as guardians of acceptable behavior and the rule of law. When community policing works best, the police and community networks become increasingly integrated as a civic force with a common point of view.

I had one brief but privileged opportunity to work in East Baltimore. When I led The Reinvestment Fund (TRF) we worked intensively with Baltimore BUILD, a local organizing alliance of churches and associations, to build housing.

The impetus to help rebuild a section of East Baltimore was the terrible fire- bombing and murder of a woman and her five children (the Dawson family) due to the fact that she was trying to push drug dealers off of her corner. This happened in 2002. Over a two year period she called the police more than a 100 times to move the drug dealers out; but she lost the fight to the dealers who burned her out.

Like today, that event took national headlines. But only briefly!

The summer after that terrible incident we worked with hundreds of neighborhood volunteers organized by BUILD to map the neighborhood and build a consensus regarding the best way to handle redevelopment. The idea was that there had to be a way to take something so horrific and turn it into something tangible and good. The plan was unveiled on the one-year anniversary of the Dawson family murders.

Anyone that was part of those meetings or has worked in that community cannot help but be impressed by the optimism of many of the neighbors in a seemingly hopeless setting. Parts of that neighborhood are today slowly recovering with re-built housing, a new school, and other amenities. But it has a long way to go.

The leadership that rebuilds Baltimore or Philadelphia’s most troubled communities faces very hard facts about the challenges ahead, both in terms of destructive elements in their community and a real history of police misconduct and public neglect. But there are assets—human, physical, and historical—around which to rebuild.

The leadership that rebuilds these communities has to be focused on reinventing the relationships of the past as part of the process of neighborhood recovery. Mayors have to be part of that reinvention. They have to be citizen leaders that share the stage, listen intensively, face the ambiguous legacies of local history, and continue to move forward.

When Philadelphians vote for a new mayor, it is wise to ask whether the person they vote for can be such a voice for recovery. Tom Peters the management guru once talked about leadership as having the right balance of humility and ambition. You have to be humble enough to listen and learn but you have to possess the ego of a builder for the future. It is a hard balance for any of us to achieve in our respective fields. But these are serious times and for that we need serious people who are not afraid to both engage and construct.

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