There are few examples of modern-day leaders who have survived a series of very public tests of their mettle and still emerge a popular hero. The former mayor of New York City, Rudy Giuliani, is one such figure who earned international admiration after quite literally rebuilding his city from near collapse on more than one occasion.
He had the honour of delivering the closing address at the recent Leaders in London event and provided a personal and entertaining insight into what he thinks it takes to wear the mantle of leadership effectively. Earning Time magazine’s prestigious title of ‘Person of the Year’ in 2001 and receiving an honorary knighthood by Queen Elizabeth II for his leadership on and after September 11, his presence provided a qualified and fitting end to the two-day conference.
Giuliani is currently chairman and CEO of Giuliani Partners, a business-consulting firm he founded in January 2002 based on the principles of integrity, optimism and courage. He also ran for the Republican Party nomination for the US presidential election, but withdrew from the race in January 2008, giving his endorsement to John McCain.
Opening his hour-long speech in front of the Leaders in London audience, Giuliani emphatically stated that leadership was something you can teach. “People ask me all the time are leaders born or made. I say leaders are made: by what they are taught; good and bad fortune; educational background; working experience and events. Of course, they have to be born – I am not denying that, being born is important! – but being ‘made’ is a privilege. Leadership is something that develops over time, and the more you study it, the better the chance you have at becoming good at it.”
In his book, Leadership, Giuliani outlines that there are at least 20 principles of leadership – but for the purposes of keeping his London speech within time, he picked out the six most important: strong belief; optimism; courage; preparation; teamwork; and communication.
In Leadership, however, Giuliani maintains that he did not suddenly become a great leader on September 11, and “had been doing my best to take on challenges my whole career”. Under his stewardship as mayor from 1993, New York City became the best-known example of the resurgence of urban America.
“When I became mayor, New York City was the crime capital of America and our economy was going through a disaster not unlike current times. In fact, it was in worse shape – right now, the unemployment rate is 6pc, but when I became mayor it was 11pc. We had 1.1 million people on welfare, now it’s down to 500,000.”
His first principle of leadership – strong belief – requires having a set of goals and direction. “If you have a business, you have to know what you want to do with it. Before you can figure out how to straighten out your business, you have to envision how you are going to do it.” Giuliani recalled first needing a vision of how he was to transform New York City from its seedy but accurate depiction in Taxi Driver into somewhere safe: “When developing the city, I used to go to parts that were decrepit and would stand there and think about what it would look like 10 years later. Then, having got that vision, I’d figure out how to achieve it – eg what are the tax breaks we’d have to give, what are the incentives we’d have to create.”
He realised his dream of cleaning up Times Square by closing down the pornography shops and putting a large police contingent on the streets. “We created a special court for Times Square, which processed crime more quickly when people were arrested. It created a turnaround in mindset.”
Optimism is second on Giuliani’s list of leadership criteria. “When you say you must be an optimist during an awful time, it sounds like you are asking people to be unrealistic and stupid. That’s not true. It’s most important to be an optimist when things are going terribly. We don’t need optimists when things are going well. You need a person who can lead you off the ship that’s sinking or out of the building that’s burning. Being an optimist means being a problem-solver, or the kind of person who, when a problem is presented, can absorb it and turn it around into an opportunity.”
He cited the current economic crisis as one such opportunity to exercise optimism. “There are benefits and bargains in a declining economy. Believe it or not, as mayor, I found it easier to govern in a declining economy than in a growing one. If you’ve got a surplus of $2bn, it is very hard to ask the legislature to make cuts. However, when I was looking at a big deficit in revenues, I could make cuts of 2 or 3pc, and thereby make government agencies more efficient.”
Courage and “relentless preparation” occupy his next two principles, and share some common ground. “For courage, I don’t mean superhero stuff, but rather taking a risk. If you downsize a business, take on a new business opportunity or go for a new job, you’re taking a risk. Fire fighters are not fearless – of course they are afraid of fire. But they are able to overcome their fear by preparation. Overcome your fear by preparing yourself, be it for a job interview or a presentation on restructuring your business. No matter what you do, practise, practise, practise.”
Giuliani is the first to admit that he had gaps in his knowledge, but maintaining his fifth principle of teamwork established a balance. “When I got elected mayor, I had two big problems – crime and an economic crisis. I knew a lot about how to solve crime, but I didn’t know nearly enough to solve the other. So I had to make sure that the people I appointed on the economy could educate me. The most important question to ask yourself is not, ‘Aren’t I a big shot?’ Rather, it’s, ‘What don’t I know? What are my weaknesses? How do I balance them with the strengths of other people?’ If you can ask these questions, you will make your organisation better than you are.”
The thing that impresses Giuliani most about president-elect Barack Obama relates precisely to this point. “He has the vision – he has appointed people with the experience he does not yet have. The sign of an effective leader is that you recognise your pluses and minuses. Everybody has them. If you don’t think you have any weaknesses, then I have a recommendation – ask your spouse.”
His final principle of communication, where you must get your ideas or views across to other people, is more effective if you can use statistical analysis to measure goals. “The Comstat programme established in 1994 in New York City helped us measure and solve crime every day in every single city precinct – and where we found that crime wasn’t coming down, we used the analysis to come up with a strategy to reduce it. It allowed us to be much more strategic in the use of our police, rather than just applying the same treatment all over the city. Every year since 1994 crime has gone down in New York, and there’s no other city in America in which this has happened.” In fact, the programme was so successful the Kennedy School of Government declared it the most innovative programme of government in the US in 1996.
Not happy to leave it at just the six, Giuliani had one last word of advice to impart: if you are aspiring to be a good leader, you must care about people. During the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Centre, Giuliani proved his loyalty to New Yorkers by walking the streets in person to encourage people to vacate the attack site. “I have a chapter in my book entitled ‘Weddings discretionary, funerals necessary’. It was a lesson from my father that means it’s more important to go to a funeral than a wedding because people need you more. In an organisation, the most important time to be there as a CEO/leader is when things are going wrong – in business, in general, or in their personal lives. Recognition of the fact that people have personal lives is crucial in the modern day, particularly to achieve sophisticated objectives with well-educated, well-motivated people. This is the element that makes things come together so people perform above and beyond the call of duty.”
This article first appeared in Marketing Age magazine.
"A gian in our time"