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I remember being on the board of a charitable group where we faced an issue every time we began to prepare for the annual meeting: None of us knew who the president was. We knew who the treasurer and secretary were, as they had specific tasks that carried us through the year. But working by consensus, the president had no role other than to chair the annual meeting. We ran the organization together, and board meetings were facilitated by whoever volunteered for that session.

Those thoughts come to mind as we grapple with the notion of replacing Ontario’s weak mayor system – initially in Toronto and Ottawa, eventually perhaps further – with a strong mayor system, in which the person widely viewed as The Leader has greater authority to act accordingly.

A number of years ago, I spent a day shadowing Kingston’s Mayor Mark Gerretsen to get a sense of the role. There was nothing dramatic – no declaration that a housing project would go through despite citizen objection nor setting aside of a Council decision – but lots of leadership, even in a weak mayor structure. People he met with were sped through to officials who could push their ideas forward – in one case the official was summoned to his office, to get things going immediately – and one young petitioner on ecology was added to the next Council agenda. Lunch was with the City Clerk; the mayor and the city chief administrative officer met later to better co-ordinate their work on some significant issues; and toward the end of the day he met the heads of all civic departments to delve into the details of the Council agenda and how best to steer the issues. Lots of scope for good leadership.

We have an inordinate desire for strong leadership even when we too often chafe at its results. When contrasted with weak leadership, it’s hard not to instinctively give strong leadership the nod but still worth being wary. Ontario Premier Doug Ford, since his civic years, has displayed an antipathy for messy leadership, seeking efficiency. But in the political realm, efficient leadership is often authoritarian leadership with all its negative consequences.

More broadly, McGill University management professor Henry Mintzberg has asked us to question efficiency as a management goal, pointing to McDonald’s as the most efficient restaurant but not necessarily the place we would pick for a special meal with a business associate or to celebrate a wedding anniversary. It’s good leadership that we need in our organizations, not necessarily strong or efficient leadership.

Too often strong leadership becomes toxic leadership. We react in horror to toxic leaders, but in fact organizational psychology professor Jean Lipman-Blumen argues we psychologically crave them. “When we don’t have them, we go to great lengths to create them. The staggering numbers of such leaders in every arena, documented in the daily news, gives ample evidence of our predilection for these problematic figures,” she wrote in her book The Allure of Toxic Leaders.

Tied to strong leadership seems to be a desire for solitary leadership – the lone leader, like the lone cowboy, overcoming threats and allowing us all to live happily ever after. There are better models, however. Consensual leadership is increasingly emerging as at least part of the approach in many organizations as we question the collateral damage of strong, command-and-control leadership.

The greatest manager of the 20th Century, according to Fortune magazine, was Jack Welch, the epitome of strong leadership. He churned out profits and leaders from within his ranks who went on to head other companies. But a reassessment by journalist David Gelles, The Man who Broke Capitalism, argues it was a disaster we failed to notice.

Mr. Welch essentially used GE Capital, a financial powerhouse, as a personal tool to find money to meet quarterly expectations and for the many acquisitions that led to a deceptive sense of growth, keeping him from addressing actual competitive challenges the individual businesses were facing and diverting everyone from signs of an impending implosion. Nobody objected; he was a strong leader, after all. A shocking number of the leaders he spun off, Mr. Gelles’s follow-up shows, failed in their new organizations. There were many reasons, each organization having its own culture and challenges, but strong Welch-infused leadership at best failed to overcome them.

It’s worth considering whether more adaptive leadership with a consensual flavour was the needed recipe for those other organizations, not strong leadership by an outsider. Similarly, in municipalities, the best leaders are not weak or strong, but adaptive and consensual. Every four years, the electorate, in its idiosyncratic, discordant, democratic way, presents its team for the municipality for the coming four years. The council better reflects the community than a single person, the mayor, can.

I have always found it odd that newly-appointed corporate CEOs are praised as strong, decisive leaders when they inevitably get rid of many of the people they inherit in the next tier or two. I see it as a weakness: They couldn’t work well with the others, leading them to a better future. Mayors can’t fire their councillors so Premier Ford is giving them some scope to override their council – to not lead it, rather than to show good leadership in working with it.


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Harvey Schachter is a Kingston, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He, along with Sheelagh Whittaker, former CEO of both EDS Canada and Cancom, are the authors of When Harvey Didn’t Meet Sheelagh: Emails on Leadership.

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