One Mayor's Provocative Leadership Lessons

Spearheaded by the mayor, Seattle has successfully reduced government carbon dioxide emissions and fossil fuel consumption. These achievements, writes Stephen Goldsmith, are the result of a provocative leader.
October 31, 2007 AT 3:00 AM
By Stephen Goldsmith  |  Contributor
Professor of practice at the Harvard Kennedy School and director of the Innovations in American Government Program

This column presents the first of a series exploring mayoral leadership. As director of the Innovations in American Government Program, a program of the Ash Institute for Democratic Governance and Innovation at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government, I have the opportunity to review over 1,000 applications every year from programs vying for one of seven $100,000 awards.

Leadership and innovation, of course, can occur at every level in city government. But, as a former mayor, I have chosen to use this column to highlight an idea championed by a mayor over the course of the next year. By definition, not all residents of any given city (or even Innovations Awards judges) agree on whether a particular initiative is an innovation. After all, if consensus came readily, it would not take much leadership to push the idea across the finish line.

Today, the spotlight is on one of this year's winners, the city of Seattle, and its mayor, Greg Nickels, who provides some provocative lessons about leadership. The city won for its Climate Protection Initiative, which accelerates climate protection action citywide and in hundreds of other cities. It is not remarkable that Seattle produced an environmentally friendly idea, since the environment is an important issue to the city's residents. However, Mayor Nickels told me recently, "the problem I faced was how do I ask my voters to make sacrifices or incur costs when the problem is at least national, if not international, and others who are doing nothing overwhelm our positive efforts."

Seattle forged a ground-breaking path in its efforts to reduce greenhouse gases. Spearheaded by the mayor, the city has successfully reduced government carbon dioxide emissions by 60 percent from 1990 levels and fossil fuel consumption by 12 percent from 1999 levels. These achievements are the result of multiple programs offering creative solutions to environmental challenges. Some examples:

o Seattle City Light: Seattle's municipal electric utility, reporting annual revenues of over $1 billion, collaborated with the city to reduce carbon dioxide emissions through innovative alternative alternative-energy investment programs and new cruise cruise-ship docking procedures.

o Clean and Green Fleet Program: Seattle's public works department vehicles, as well as regional buses and other vehicles, now run on biodiesel fuels and ultra-low-sulfur diesel.

o Smart Growth: Seattle is at the forefront of creative urban planning programming that encourages energy efficiency and reduced dependence on motor vehicles.

What makes these programs so interesting is how the mayor tackled a global issue at the local level.

Global warming is clearly at the forefront of the national consciousness -- one need look no further than the Academy Award that former Vice President Al Gore received for An Inconvenient Truth -- but it is a classic free-rider case. Those who do not take up the cause and costs of fighting global warming cannot be excluded from the benefits provided by those that do. When we add to this reality the reasonable assumption that Mayor Nickels is a rational, self-interested actor whose primary interest is presumably his next campaign, why would he tackle global warming, and what can we learn from his success?

First, Mayor Nickels proves that it is possible to be the catalyzing force in an effort which falls outside of the normal scope of the leader's office. Global warming is neither trash pickup nor opening schools on time -- benchmarks for which we normally hold our local elected leaders accountable -- and it does not lend itself to easily assessing success or failure in the short term. But Mayor Nickels had the foresight to understand that making a substantive difference in Seattle would act as a springboard for him to lead other cities to take action.

Second, when taking on an issue not easily identified as "local" for which performance measurement is tenuous at best, local leaders must carefully articulate their case to the voters. As the mayor mayor said at this year's Innovations Awards ceremony, "We believe global warming is the biggest threat to our planet affecting each and every one of our citizens across the country. Higher atmospheric temperatures will ultimately damage Seattle's water and hydroelectric power supply and threaten our natural environment and the quality of life in the Pacific Northwest." The mayor mayor successfully communicated his vision that climate change is not beyond the capacity and responsibility of local governments to confront, and gained his constituents' support, irrespective of the obvious free-rider problem.

Finally, tackling an "uncharacteristic" problem means organizing unlikely constituents; in this case, the National Conference of Mayors. As the city reported, "On February 16, 2005, coinciding with the effective date of the Kyoto Protocol, Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels launched the US Mayors Climate Protection Agreement (MCPA) with the vision of driving national policy through local government leadership. As of September 19, 2007, 672 mayors across the country have signed the Agreement, representing roughly 73 million Americans from all 50 states." The mayor found a way to make the sum of the parts, multiple local efforts, at least as effective as a stated national policy.

Leadership in non-core areas raises many questions. Does it distract attention from core issues? Does it run the risk of alienating voters worried about specific local problems? Does it put the city's economy at risk? Seattle's leadership in involving cities in the battle against global warming provides interesting lessons on how to combine local and global priorities in nontraditional ways, and proves that the longer view can work in concert with political aspirations.