The Leadership Test
By Ron Donoho
(page 1 of 4)Byron Wear phones to say he’s running late. Hey, it happens. Actually, 45 minutes of downtime in the mayoral candidate’s La Jolla campaign office is a pleasant respite. The oversized chairs are comfy. It’s warm—but not stifling. Rather than irritate, the delay allows for reflection.
Waiting for San Diego’s District 2 city councilman creates a wrinkle in time to consider the task at hand: Interview seven mayoral wanna-bes in three days. And, by asking them the same directed questions (more or less), try to determine who’s the best leader among Jim Bell, Peter Davis, Dick Murphy, Ron Roberts, George Stevens, Barbara Warden and the aforementioned Wear.
Leadership. For years, San Diegans have been bemoaning a lack of focused and sturdy political guidance for the city. It’s the subject of cocktail-party chat and talk radio shows and regular fodder for newspaper columnists. In particular, the column on page A-3 of The San Diego Union-Tribune has been used as bully pulpit from which to cry out for someone to take charge.
But just how do you select the best leader among disparate individuals? As one candidate notes, “All of us claim to be honest, and all of us claim to have leadership. It’s not something you can quantify. You can’t say, ‘This guy has 120 units of leadership.’”
True. But using the best test we could find (more on this later), an attempt was made to create a level platform where executive mettle could be put on display.
Leadership rankings are not a popularity contest. Sometimes leaders are the least liked—just look to New York City and Mayor Rudy Giuliani. Nicety didn’t get in the way as San Diego’s candidates were
graded. Neither did issues. Political stances were ignored—except in the context of how proposed implementation exemplified leadership. Also disregarded: political party, war chests, gender and ethnicity. We were looking only for the alpha candidate.
Now step back into Wear’s waiting room. He arrives, dressed quite casually, and is apologizing because a prior meeting ran long. No points deducted. During the course of the interview, Wear is asked if the public can still look to politicians as leaders.
“I know there is an anti–city council vote out there,” he says. “There are some candidates running against the city of San Diego—Peter Davis and Dick Murphy and Ron Roberts. But George Stevens and Barbara Warden and I have done good things in our council districts.” Wear says though people may claim to dislike the council, they’re usually quite happy with their own district representative.
But, he says, “Elected officials are always going to be suspect. Historically, it’s been that way. We start out at a disadvantage. From the public-opinion standpoint, we make the wrong decisions, and we’re corrupt, greedy and stupid.” Wear adds that he, of course, is none of those things.
Asked in a separate interview about the public’s perception, a gregarious Roberts, who represents District 4 on the County Board of Supervisors, says politicians have to earn the public’s confidence as leaders. “We don’t look up to every baseball or football player anymore, and it’s the same with elected officials,” he says. “It’s an individual thing.” As you might imagine, Roberts gives plenty of examples why you should look up to him.
Though the candidates disagree on what makes the best leader, all concur on one thing: They’d be better at it than outgoing Mayor Susan Golding. (To eliminate redundancy, nearly all references to the loathed Chargers ticket guarantee have been omitted.)
“By my definition, a leader is someone who works with people on deciding what to do and then empowers them to do it,” says Murphy, a serious-looking Superior Court judge taking a unpaid leave of absence. “I hear criticism of Susan’s accessibility. If people don’t have access to you, you don’t know what they want to achieve.”
City Councilmembers Warden (District 5) and Stevens (District 4) also point to isolationism in City Hall as Golding’s major leadership flaw.
“There certainly is a lack of accessibility,” says Warden, sitting in her downtown council office looking like she wants to relax but can’t quite. “Susan has some fine ideas, but you have to get people to the table to hear their thoughts.”
Asked if a lack of leadership is the number-one problem in the mayor’s office right now, Stevens, seemingly distracted as he sits in the lobby of the Westgate Hotel, replies, “No doubt in my mind... You have to work with other branches of government, and that’s just not taking place.”
Davis, imperious-looking even when not wearing banker’s suit and power tie, is the most direct in his Golding-bashing. “I think people will support what they were a part of deciding. I don’t think Susan shares that management concept. She takes on projects herself and brings them to a certain stage before she engages the council. And at that point it may be too complex for the council to grasp what’s going on. Therefore, they weaken every time there’s a criticism.”
It hardly needs mentioning, but Murphy, Warden, Stevens and Davis all pledge they’d be more accessible and inclusive than Mayor Golding.
Of the seven candidates questioned, the only one who doesn’t mention accessibility—and Golding’s perceived lack of it—is Jim Bell. Of the full slate of 16 (whew!) individuals running for mayor, the calm and deliberate Bell, an ecological designer, is the one fringe candidate who seems to get invited to most of the official mayoral debates and panels. (Just because he’s an environmentalist, who says he can’t be a leader?)
On Golding, Bell says, “The biggest thing is her lack of a vision. She really doesn’t have much credibility anymore. Some people think she’s a good administrator. But if you’re administrating the rearranging of the deck chairs on the Titanic, you’re not dealing with the fact that you’re moving into iceberg territory.” This type of activity would not, he points out, occur in a Bell administration.