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Toronto Mayor David Miller (Kevin Van Paassen)
Toronto Mayor David Miller (Kevin Van Paassen)

Leadership: David Miller

Why David Miller doesn't read the papers Add to ...

When David Miller, Toronto's 63rd mayor, was visiting fellow Mayor Richard Daley in Chicago, Mr. Daley was being criticized all over the front pages of the newspapers. Mr. Miller recalls their conversation this way:

"I said, 'Richard, how does it feel to get up in the morning, open your door and have this the first thing you look at?' He looked at me with absolute horror and said, 'You don't read the newspapers, do you?'"

It was "a great piece of advice," says Mr. Miller, who likes to handle the criticism on the front pages of Toronto's newspapers by completely ignoring it.

"I'm briefed on all the information I need, but particularly when it gets personal, it's irrelevant to me," says Mr. Miller, 51. "One of the challenges of being mayor is that it's sort of like being general manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs. Everybody knows your job and everybody has an opinion on how well you're doing it. That's part of life."

David Miller 'If you blow in the wind you're no use to anybody'

Mr. Miller was elected mayor in 2003 and re-elected in 2006 with nearly 60 per cent of the popular vote, but, for family reasons, he will not be running in the 2010 election. He describes his leadership style as setting a clear vision and then getting the best possible people to implement it.

"I don't micro-manage, but I stick to my guns," says Mr. Miller. "If it's contrary to my vision or expectations, it doesn't happen. If it's consistent, I let people do it the way they choose as long as they're going on the same path."

In his last election, Mr. Miller set down what he wanted to do as mayor in a written document, so that he would be clear with himself about his goals: to make Toronto a city of prosperity, livability and opportunity for all. Public transit and the environment have been among the key issues for him, and in 2008, Mr. Miller was appointed chair of the C40 group of cities leading the fight against global warming.

"When I have to make a tough decision, the first thing I always do is check back to what my commitment was to the people of Toronto," says Mr. Miller. "I try to analyze the situation as best I can ahead of time and absolutely stick to my principles. That doesn't mean there's no room for compromise, but you don't sell out your principles. … I try to work from that basis, and sure, sometimes in hindsight, things could have gone better."

Mr. Miller says his passion for social justice came from his upbringing. The only child of a single mother, he grew up in a farming village of 70 people in England, with a dairy behind their house, an egg farm, a shop, a church "which ran everything," a working blacksmith and two pubs. His mother was the teacher, raising a son and taking care of his granddad at the same time.

"My friends were the boys from the council houses, and every night when I came home, I spoke like them," says Mr. Miller. "My mum used to say to me, 'You can't speak like that. If you speak like that, everybody's going to think you're a farmer and that's all you'll be able to be. You need to speak like the queen in order to have opportunity.' Can you imagine being four years old and told you're not allowed to speak like your friends?

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"That ingrained in me the sense that there were real inequalities in life, and I didn't think that was right. It drove me to learn about economics because I really couldn't understand why there were really rich people and really poor people. It led me to become a lawyer, because I thought it was all about injustice - it isn't necessarily - and to run for office. But I think it all started with my mum telling me to speak like the queen and not like my friends."

Mr. Miller's diverse education included his mother's public school, a private school in England on scholarship, a public school in Ottawa when he came to Canada in 1967 and Lakefield, a private school in Peterborough, Ont., famous for having Prince Andrew as a student who arrived at the school when Mr. Miller was in grade 13.

"I had a scholarship and my mum worked three jobs [two part-time along with teaching]to pay her part," says Mr. Miller. "I loved it. I was head boy and captain of the soccer/rugby team. I've got lifelong friends from Lakefield, but I was the scholarship kid. If I didn't keep my grades up, I was gone. That happened to another scholarship kid who was gone by Grade 10. That wouldn't happen to the kids who were better off. In a subtle way, it reinforces who you are."

Mr. Miller graduated with a degree in economics from Harvard University and a law degree from the University of Toronto. Before starting his political life, he was a partner at the Toronto law firm Aird & Berlis, specializing in employment and immigration law and shareholder rights.

As an elected official, Mr. Miller says one of the biggest challenges is staying in regular touch with people. So he's made a systematic effort to do that by using social media such as Facebook and particularly Twitter.

"I'm the guy who tweets," says Mr. Miller. "An important part of politics is listening. You need to know where people are at. What's the pulse?"

When he started tweeting, he treated it as a way to get his message out about what was happening. But then someone sent him a note saying, 'You're not using Twitter right. It's supposed to be a conversation. Listen to us.'

"So I started using it the way that I use going to the coffee shop - listening to people and engaging in conversation," says Mr. Miller. "I follow people and learn from them. I follow mayors who I consider to be creative and inventive leaders. It's also good for my first purpose of letting people know what's going on in the city."

As an avid soccer fan, he's known for tweeting throughout every game he manages to attend.

"Social media is extremely helpful, but I also have some fun with it," says Mr. Miller. "I tweet what's happening at the Toronto FC games if I go, but that's also a little bit deliberate. People aren't going to follow you if you're boring."

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