Adrian Fenty and the Leader’s Duty of Likability

Arch Lustberg is an old friend, and also a wise man. He is a communications trainer and expert par excellence, and the number of failed politicians who would have been elected had they hired him is legion, and growing with every election. One of Arch’s mantras is that likability is essential to trust. A public figure can be brilliant, creative, eloquent and effective, but if he or she is not liked, all of those assets may be not be enough to win the support of the public. Arch was proven right once again when D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty, praised by the D.C. media for a series of reforms in the city, notably of the infamously bloated and ineffective school system, lost his bid for re-election. Fenty, as reported by the Washington Post, really believed that doing his job would be enough, that the symbolic gestures and image-building activities used by savvy leaders to cement their electoral base were unnecessary, a waste of time. Now he is out, defeated by an opponent who embraced the endorsement of Marion Barry, whose corruption of the D.C. political culture still endures, three decades after he was mayor.

If you think I am going to argue that Adrian Fenty is a principled public servant laid low by public ignorance and warped priorities, you are wrong. I think Fenty deserved re-election, but his defeat was fueled by his own arrogance and basic misunderstanding of the duties of leadership. Because he shares these flaws with our President, it is worth learning from his example.

A leader has a duty to move his organization, city, state, or nation in the right direction (whatever that may be) for the public good, and maintaining his popularity, credibility and influence is as important to accomplishing that goal as the policies the leader pursues. Machiavelli, in The Prince, famously wrote that an effective  leader must either be feared or loved. Being feared doesn’t work very well in a democracy, where leaders have to fear being tossed out on their ear in the next election, so that leaves love. Mayor Fenty, according to reports, was disdainful of this requirement.

In June, when his political advisors told him that despite widespread approval for his job performance, the public increasingly found his attitude offensive and his concern for the feelings and opinions of constituents lacking. Fenty declared that he was “proud of his record” and stormed out of the meeting.

Installing  tough and effective policies while maintaining integrity and sustaining likability is a difficult balancing act. Some leaders, like Ronald Reagan and Franklin Roosevelt, have a natural talent for it. For most, however, it is a constant struggle. A leader who sacrifices the policies he  knows are necessary to keep his popularity is a pandering coward. A leader who uses deceit and misrepresentation to hide what he is doing and obscure policies that are not going to please the public will eventually lose the public’s trust. And not even trying to make the public believe you care about what they think about you and your performance? That’s arrogant and condescending, the equivalent of telling your staff and supporters that you don’t need them, their advice, or approval.

Fenty arrived on the scene as a “post-racial” candidate, which meant, as with President Obama, that he was anything but post-racial: every choice he made was bound to be examined according to its racial implications in a majority black city with many influential and affluent white residents. Fenty began his administration by defiantly filling most major city positions with whites and Asians, including some with dubious credentials. It was downhill from there. Once Fenty ceased to be seen as a friend and ally by his biggest constituency, his ability to accomplish his most important mission was crippled. Thanks to Barry, the prevailing attitude among middle class and lower middle class blacks in D.C is that the city government is the employer of last resort. For decades, this has resulted in the triple-curse of bloated staffs, busted budgets and a municipal government full of cronies, crooks and incompetents. Changing this culture is a daunting task, and it takes a persuasive, powerful leader to do it. It cannot be accomplished by a mayor who is not trusted or liked.

Fenty knew how to start the process: purging the pathetic D.C. school system, one of the most expensive and under-performing in the country. His Chancellor, Michelle Rhee, fired hundreds of teachers whose students consistently failed, but many in the black community reacted to the necessary move like Wilson Givens, a retired, black equipment operator who voted for Fenty in 2006. “He fired those teachers, that did it for me,” he told the Washington Post. “Does he understand that a job is a family’s livelihood? I didn’t know anybody who was fired personally, but I can relate. I know how it feels, and I felt for those teachers and their families. That was it for me. Would never trust him again.”

Now, Givens’s position is illogical and indefensible. Teachers have a critical task to do that affects the future of the next generation; using teaching positions—or any government job— as a form of welfare to the detriment of  a community’s children is self-destructive. That is the culture of Washington, D.C., however, thank to the legacy of Barry and others. It must be changed, but it can only be changed by a leader who convinces the black residents of D.C that he has their best interests in mind. To do this, he must be trusted, and to be trusted, he must be liked.

Adrian Fenty either didn’t understand that aspect of leadership, or ignored it. Now D.C. may be headed backwards to the old ways of using government contracts and salaries to support the unemployable, resulting in waste, corruption, inefficiency, and uneducated children. Though Fenty worked diligently to end this practice, he will be partially accountable for its persistence. In America, if you won’t make an effort to be liked, you destroy your ability to lead.

That is why good leaders have a duty to be likable.

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