Leadership moments in New York

Back in September 2010, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg took a position in favour of building a mosque near Ground Zero and, in so doing, joined a highly emotional debate that swept the nation. He didn’t back away when the controversy became a national one, taking a principled stance as mayor of the city that was the subject of an unspeakable terrorist attack. This was a leadership moment.

Since January 2011, New Yorkers statewide have been treated to a similar series of leadership moments by recently elected Governor Andrew Cuomo, particularly with respect to his negotiations with the state’s unionized employees. 

With a slow recovery and serious deficit and debt issues forcing many states to downsize and question existing collective agreements and benefits, many governors have opted for confrontation with state employees. States with newly elected Republican governors, such as in Wisconsin, Ohio, Florida and New Jersey, have taken a harder line. The results have been mixed and the ideological divide with labour unions has not been more acute in decades.

Cuomo opted for a different approach with NYS unions, one based on negotiations between partners with an upfront acknowledgement by the governor that the status quo was untenable and he expected concessions. The result has been a model of good governance, a balanced budget and the creation of a climate for constructive change.

Just this weekend, history will record the passage of the same-sex marriage bill by the New York legislature as a great victory for those who saw it as a civil rights issue. The message will resonate across the country at a time when polls are showing majority support for same-sex marriage. Despite the increasing public acceptance, there remain significant bastions of resistance among religious and political leaders. For Cuomo to succeed, it took daring, determination, and principle.

Leadership has many definitions and is exercised in different circumstances. In politics, two of the strongest tests of leadership involve getting your political base to make concessions that involve giving something up that is dear to you. The second is to stand on principle and bring about transformational change in the society you are called upon to lead.

Observing Bloomberg and Cuomo up close lends credence to the belief that principle, respect, and the courage to do what is right can still be a winner in this age of focus group testing and media consultants.