The Daily Record: ‘Transformational leader’ needed as Baltimore’s next mayor

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Editor’s note: The following commentary appeared on TheDailyRecord.com on December 18, 2015.

By Donald C. Fry

While the first trial of a Baltimore police officer charged in the tragic death of Freddie Gray has dominated the news and the public’s attention these last few weeks, another important event has also been unfolding that will ultimately have a profound effect on the city’s future.

It’s the race for who will be elected in 2016 as the next Baltimore mayor. If you haven’t paid close attention, it is expected that more than a dozen candidates will file to run in the Democratic primary – the party primary that historically has dominated mayoral elections.

In this large field, there are currently six candidates who have enough experience, credentials and fund-raising power to be serious contenders. Without a very strong Republican or independent candidate emerging, the winner of the Democratic primary is likely to become the next mayor.

While all elections are important, this mayoral election is pivotal, given a confluence of events, good and bad, this past year.

First among these is the civil unrest that erupted in the spring and the social and economic disparities that are at the core of the ensuing calls for change.

The cancellation of the Red Line, the 14.1-mile, east-west light rail project in Baltimore, by Gov. Larry Hogan also served as a serious setback for the city and its efforts to provide viable transportation options to major employment hubs in and around the city for those who are transit dependent.

Perhaps most significant and troublesome is that Baltimore continues to struggle with a high homicide rate. With more than 325 murders to date, this year will end as the deadliest year, per capita, in the city’s history.

Encouraging trends

On the flip side of the equation, there are a number of encouraging trends in the city which need to be supported and leveraged to the fullest extent by a new mayor.

These positive signs include significant capital investment in the form of major commercial and residential real estate development projects throughout the city, a surge of bookings from groups choosing Baltimore to hold major conventions and conferences over strong national competitors, and millennials embracing the city for its urban authenticity, affordability and entrepreneurial culture and spirit.

Furthermore, the private sector, including major businesses and organizations such as One Baltimore, Associated Black Charities, the Greater Baltimore Committee and others, have launched or become engaged in efforts to address the underlying social and economic issues that sparked the unrest and the spirited calls for meaningful change.

These dynamics raise the question: What qualities are most important to look for in the next mayor for Baltimore to realize its untapped potential?

Many have noted that at this point in time it is critical for Baltimore voters to elect a “transformational leader” to the mayor’s seat.

So, what’s a transformational leader?

Positive change

Simply put, transformational leadership is a style of leadership that can inspire positive change.  Kendra Cherry, a psychology expert, has defined transformational as “a type of leadership style that can inspire positive changes in those who follow. Transformational leaders are generally energetic, enthusiastic, and passionate.”

Cherry also references leadership expert James MacGregor Burns, who initially introduced the concept of transformational leadership, noting that “through the strength of their vision and personality, transformational leaders are able to inspire followers to change expectations, perceptions, and motivations to work toward common goals.”

Major cities that have experienced turnarounds in their history have been led by transformational leaders.

Those familiar with Baltimore’s initial renaissance know about William Donald Schaefer, who lived and breathed his job as mayor in the 1970s and 1980s. He was the “do it now” mayor who got things done and left no stone unturned in his quest to make Baltimore full of growth, change and pride. Schaefer was a transformational leader.

Other major cities such as Philadelphia and New York City have experienced significant turnarounds. They, too, were led by mayors who served as transformational leaders and left legacies that are in the history books.

Leave a legacy

When Ed Rendell came into office in Philadelphia in the early 1990s, the city had a budget deficit of $250 million and its reputation was tarnished. The city also had a low credit rating, making it tough to borrow for projects. Rendell made the tough decisions needed to balance the city budget, instituted long-term financial planning and ultimately generating a surplus. He accomplished this while also improving efficiencies in city government and expanding services to Philadelphia neighborhoods.

Elected in 1993, Rudy Giuliani went on to serve two terms as mayor of New York. Many remember Giuliani for the impressive way in which he united the city and brought a sense of assurance in the immediate aftermath of the Sept. 11 tragedy.

But before that crisis, Giuliani worked hard and inspired others to bring overdue change to the way the city approached and tackled tough problems, improved city services, cleaned up New York streets, and fought crime – his top priority at the time. Giuliani restored pride among city residents and changed the perception of New York in the eyes of visitors.

Baltimore needs a mayor like Schaefer, Rendell or Giuliani. A mayor who will focus on important priorities, provide the inspiration that the challenges facing the city can and will be overcome, and serve as a change agent.

Historian Vincent J. Cannato wrote of Giuliani’s legacy that he “left a city immeasurably better off – safer, more prosperous, and more confident.” That’s a legacy that Baltimore’s next mayor should strive to duplicate.

Donald C. Fry is President and CEO of the Greater Baltimore Committee and a regular contributor to The Daily Record.

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