Assessing leadership: The McGinn style

It is often easier to say what you're against rather than what you are for, and sometimes easier to make a statement than find a solution. Will Mike McGinn master the skills to be effective as a city administrator?
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Mayor Mike McGinn talks to reporters in May.

It is often easier to say what you're against rather than what you are for, and sometimes easier to make a statement than find a solution. Will Mike McGinn master the skills to be effective as a city administrator?

In his classic study, Leadership, the historian of the presidency, James MacGregor Burns, says that leaders tend to be either "transactional" or "transformational" in style and approach.

The transactional leader operates on the quid pro quo, you do something for me and I do something for you. You get a bridge or funding for a community program, I get your vote and your support in other forms. U.S. Sen. Patty Murray seems largely to fall in the transactional category as she finds federal dollars to fund local projects. State House Speaker Frank Chopp and former Mayor Greg Nickels also exemplify this mode.

The transformational leader is different. She or he seeks to elevate the aspirations or values of the body politic, to ask us to be more than we presently are, and to, in Burns's words, "engage the fuller person of the follower." President Barack Obama has often been spoken of as such a transformational leader, one who may change the ways we think and act. Locally, former Mayor Paul Schell aspired to be such a leader but found himself overtaken by events and crises.

Burns points out that most successful political leaders are some of both. They are both transactional, meeting felt needs, and transformational, having and communicating some bigger picture or larger vision. Such "mixed" leaders respond to and meet felt needs within their constituency, and they call upon people to fulfill some sense of a higher calling. President Lyndon Johnson, especially before the Vietnam War eclipsed all else, did both.

What kind of leader is Seattle'ꀙs new mayor, Mike McGinn? In many ways, McGinn falls more on the transformational side of Burns'ꀙs framework. He seeks a transformed Seattle, one where Seattleites rely less on cars and big roads, where our carbon production is checked and cut, and where real progress is made on new models of being a city in the post-fossil fuel age. The BP oil disaster has only swelled this wave.

But while transformational leaders typically rely on rhetorical or oratorical powers to frame issues as well as to motivate and inspire, this does not seem to be McGinn's style. He seems a more lawyerly type of transformational leader who will use strategy and ploys like his August pledge to, if elected, enact the will of the city council on the tunnel proposal, or his more recent seizing on the ambiguous 'ꀜcost overrun'ꀝ language on the same issue.

McGinn uses language less to inspire than as tool for gaining leverage and obstruction. As in his past legal career, he is a litigator, ingeniously and stubbornly pushing for victory.

In his now famous June 3 exchange with Gov. Christine Gregoire and Councilman Tom Rasmussen on the cost overrun issue, McGinn refused to let go of the cost-overrun bone even when a frustrated Gregoire pointed out there was no real bone there. Gregoire said, repeatedly, that the cost-overrun provision was not legal binding and would require further legislative action to become so. When Rasmussen tried to pin the mayor down on the tunnel, McGinn's response was somehow reminiscent of Bill Clinton's, "it depends on the meaning of 'is.' "

In another sense, however, perhaps McGinn might be considered a transactional leader, one who gives his followers what they want. For the coalition that makes up his constituency, younger voters and recent arrivals to Seattle with overriding environmental interest, supporters of urban density, and people reflexively disinclined to support major public works projects and reflexively inclined to distrust power-brokers, McGinn says, "I am one of you. I"m different, not your usual politician."

He rides his bike to community events and appearances, sometimes showing up late, often disheveled. He figures out ways to reopen issues like the Highway 520 bridge project, frustrating powers-that-be but appealing to those whose approach to such ventures is, "Just say no." McGinn's path to a transformational agenda seems a procedural one, tying things up to change the agenda.

From personal style to organizational approach, McGinn does want to communicate the message: "I'm different." Whether this will prove productive or merely self-indulgent remains to be seen. One problem with a style that depends on "being different" is that in an odd way it requires someone or something to define oneself against, as in "I am the anti-Nickels," or "I am not the downtown establishment." McGinn needs the council or governor or "establishment" to define himself against.

One result of this is the tendency to make enemies, something McGinn seems to be achieving, with for example, Microsoft's Steve Ballmer as well as the governor, among others. For many these days, this is a politically popular stance incorporating a bit of the Tea Party brew and challenging "Seattle Nice." It may not wear well in the long run.

What McGinn is for may be evident after all: the 'ꀜde-highwaying" of Seattle, letting auto users figure it out for themselves.

Moreover, when being different is your identity or mantra, it is often easier to say what or who you are against, but harder to say what you are for. The June 3 tunnel debate with Gregoire and Rasmussen was a classic instance of that. Still, what McGinn is for may be evident after all: the 'ꀜde-highwaying" of Seattle, letting auto users figure it out for themselves.

While there is broad support for Green Seattle here in the Emerald City, translating this big picture into a workable program and coherent city administration appears to be McGinn's challenge. He has the skill set of a lawyer-community activist.

Can he develop the skill set of an effective city executive and administrator? Does he want to? It will be interesting to watch.


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About the Authors & Contributors

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Anthony B. Robinson

Anthony B. Robinson was the Senior Minister of Plymouth Church in downtown Seattle from 1990 to 2004. He was also a member of the Plymouth Housing Group Board. After living for many years in southeast Seattle, he moved recently to Ballard.