It’s funny how things stay with you over the years. I grew up in a Connecticut suburb of New York City. While my hometown of New Canaan couldn’t have seemed further away from the Big Apple, every night the local news would feature the pugnacious mayor of New York, Ed Koch.
The chaos of financial uncertainty, public union strikes and real strife between neighborhoods and ethnic communities made New York a national lightning rod. This frustration was captured in the classic Daily News headline: “FORD TO CITY: DROP DEAD.” (President Ford didn’t actually say this, but then again, it is the Daily News).
Faced with tough austerity measures, high crime and tense community relationships, Koch inherited a city on the brink. However, he chose to forego traditional machine politics in favor of bringing his message directly to the people. He became famous (or infamous) for planting himself outside subway stops morning after morning to ask the folks who loved him, hated him and re-elected him twice, “How’m I doin?”
New Yorkers then and now are not exactly famous for their reticence. They’ll let you know how you’re doing in very colorful terms. But Koch stood there and listened, dodged the worst of it and made himself accountable to his constituents.
He knew it was better to initiate conversations and explain his actions rather than to stay holed up in Gracie Mansion.
Eventually, every leader is held accountable — whether it’s a school committee vote, budget issue, bond or tax levy request. But we can learn a lesson from the mayor who brought NYC from bankruptcy to surplus. Leadership is only strengthened by asking and answering the community you serve the hard questions.
So – How’r you doin?