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PHIL HARDWICK — What makes a good mayor?


Now that municipal elections in Mississippi are over it’s time for the winning candidates to consider their new roles. Those who are assuming office for the first time will discover that being a mayor or board/council member is quite different from being a candidate.

Being a mayor in particular is one of the toughest jobs going.  A mayor does not have the influence and authority of a business CEO.  Many new mayors are shocked to find that it oftentimes takes more persuasion skills than decision skills to run a city. Some mayors will find that they ran for office on some great issue only to find that it’s much about barking dogs and drainage complaints.

Sometimes, mayors are merely caretakers.  They live in communities that are on a track upward or downward.  They might live in communities where not much changes and not much is really expected of mayors.  Sometimes, mayors sort of grow into the job.  Sometimes, mayors cross the line and become leaders.  They change their cities for the better.  How do they do it?  Most will tell you that they did it by involving people and that they had a lot of help.  That is no doubt true.  But it starts from within.  So this column is about some of those intrinsic things in mayors.

My list should be considered as a discussion starter.  Let’s call it traits of a good mayor. Please feel free to add and subtract from the list, or better yet name a mayor who exemplifies one of the traits.

(1)   The ability to envision the future.  It is said that management is the ability to move others from Point A to Point B, and that leadership is the ability to discern where Point B should be.  The mayor should be the one who provides direction. In a recent Time magazine article the point was made that each of the five best mayors named in the story exhibited a vision for the future.  But having a vision is no good if it cannot be sold to the public.  That is why a good mayor must have the next listed trait.

(2)  Good communication skills, especially the ability to listen.  If one of the more effective leadership styles is the ability to envision the future, then convincing others to join in that vision is critical.  That’s a difficult thing because the message that is sent is never the message that is received.  If you don’t believe that, just ask any mayor if he or she has ever been misquoted or taken out of context.  A good mayor must be able to sell his or her program.  Unfortunately, sometimes mayors get too far ahead of their communities and attempt to sell a vision that the community simply does not feel can be reached.  A mayor must listen to his or her constituents and make them feel that they have been heard.  People want their mayor to care about their problems and their vision as well.

(3)  The ability to inspire others.  A good mayor inspires others.  People want to get involved and be a part of the effort.  One thing that good mayors do is start with a successful project and then build on it.  One mayor I know even says that mayors should not make their big goals public because it gives their opponents ammunition if they fail.  Keep it quiet and just do it, he says.

(4)  The ability to delegate.  Good mayors provide direction and hire capable managers to implement the plan.  In the business world, a good executive hires good people and lets them make the decisions that they would make instead of what they think the chief executive would make.  Not so in the political world.  Politically-appointed managers must constantly consider the effect of their decisions on the public image of the mayor.  Watch out when you hear a mayor being criticized for micromanaging.  It might mean a lack of delegation skills and a lack of trust of those who report to the mayor.

(5)  A bias for action.  Planning without implementing is not leading.  Too many mayors spend so much time on the visioning part that they do not accomplish anything.  Visioning provides hope, planning provides involvement, but in the final analysis it is action that produces results.  A mayor should be judged on results.

(6)  Integrity.  A mayor without integrity is not deserving of the public trust.

Obviously, we could add many more items to this list. But these characters form the foundation for any good public official.

» Phil Hardwick is a regular Mississippi Business Journal columnist. His email address is phil@philhardwick.com.


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