It’s time we’re honest with ourselves about what leadership really is and how real leadership could move us forward in this time of crisis. For far too long, we have been duped by imposters and it has cost us dearly. At the top, leadership deficiencies create a culture of impunity where corruption reigns and resources are squandered. At the grassroots level, those deficiencies create division, discord, and obstacles to generating sustainable outcomes that advance a grassroots agenda.
Misleadership is driven by ego and self-aggrandizement. It inspires no one and generates minimal results. On the other hand, leadership, true leadership is service-driven. It is connected to a vision of something different, something greater than what the present reality displays. It inspires and galvanizes people. Misleadership keeps people in a state of perpetual dependency and lack. True leadership creates the space for agency in which people are able to do for themselves. Misleadership attempts to overpower. Leadership, empowers.
I watched the City Council speech Mayor Emanuel gave this week. I examined the mayor’s eyes, his body language and tone as he talked about accountability and reform. I couldn’t help but notice the disconnect – his promises of accountability and progress falling awkwardly along a trail littered with mis-direction, cover ups and lies of omission that extended for over a year and resulted in the denial of justice for a troubled 17-year-old.
Leadership is difficult. Public leadership carries with it a heavy burden. It requires a threshold of integrity that has seemed almost impossible to meet – particularly in a city like Chicago – notorious for the depths of its corruption. Leadership requires that one must stand in the face of sometimes, daunting, sometimes frightening circumstances, possible ridicule, and the scorching fire of public scrutiny and public criticism.
Effective leaders, good leaders, take up that burden. They know that integrity is one’s best shield and one’s greatest weapon is truth. They know that these two things bring courage – the courage so necessary to navigate precarious terrain. They own their successes as well as their mistakes. They do the right thing not just because they fear being caught doing wrong, but because they respect the trust that has been given to them by the public and the larger need to preserve that trust for the sake of their own legitimacy as leaders and the legitimacy of our public institutions.
The city and the world have seen in recent weeks, the evidence that Chicago was duped by the glittering lights of a Mayor that came with the cheap misleadership glitz that fooled so many into believing he was the real deal: the friendship of a sitting president, the seemingly inexhaustible financial resources, and Hollywood stars for just the right amount of glamour.
Meanwhile, the culture of corruption has seeped even more deeply into the highest levels of government – from the Mayors office on down. The mayor’s hand, forced by the court-ordered release of the incriminating dashcam video revealed the ugly specter of the corruption lurking just out of public view. That corruption – until now, was the monster under the stairwell, gobbling up trust and faith in any of the public institutions upon which we rely.
We are witnessing a mayor perhaps in his most honest moment – a diminutive character, desperately trying to hold in place the now tattered curtain of a mythology that he created – with the help of his supporters – to paint him as larger-than-life. A true Wizard-of-Oz like character, replete with the over-blown ego, predilection for bullying, and autocratic tendencies. But now, the once cowardly Lion has found a bit more courage now that the masses have caught a glimpse of the charade. More lions are speaking out – young lions from new organizing movements and they are not intimidated by those harbingers of the status quo who seek to deflect the true responsibility for the morass that has engulfed the city and attempt to downplay the historic nature of this moment. These young lions are no longer pacified by those former pillars of change who have now become hurdles. They leap over hurdles and will do so with the ease that comes with youth.
Now that he has been exposed, the mayor stands behind the individuals for which he surreptitiously waits to sacrifice in order to protect his shrinking power, his declining legitimacy; the Barbara Byrd Bennetts, the Amer Ahmads, the Garry McCarthy’s, the entire police department – ready to feed them to the wolves once the chorus of “off with their heads” registers loudly enough. We have seen this Mayor, his Superintendent and a State’s Attorney – all individuals that we would call “leaders”, stumble, stammer and prevaricate for the purposes of keeping the blanket of corruption over their heads, and over their misdeeds.
While many have called for his resignation, I contend that our most strident efforts must center on aggressively pushing for institutional reforms that have collected dust on bookshelves for far too long. The system is much bigger than any one mayor. Moreover, changing the power dynamic in City Hall – shifting away from the strong mayor/weak council model to the strong council/weak mayor system it was designed to be can ensure that decisions that affect this city are pushed by a City Council beholden to their constituents – not just to the whims of a mayor. It’s past time for City Council to exercise muscles atrophied from decades of dormancy.
The Mayor himself is known for his mantra: Never let a crisis go to waste. Never before have these words rang more true – only now, the opportunity is for the public to use this moment to push for the institutional change that has eluded us for far too long. It is only in so doing that we can ensure that the lives of Laquan McDonald, and so many others, would not have been in vain.