My proposal to use the word “ford” as a leadership verb

For much of the past thousand years the term ford has been used either as a noun, referring to a shallow place in a river that is easy to wade through, thus not needing to build a bridge, or it has been used as a verb, describing the act of crossing a river at this same shallow place. In either case, one could project that it represents the conquest of a significant challenge by minimizing both work and planning, while leaving no structure in place to handle future needs.

This term comes so aptly to mind while observing the daily escapades of the current mayor of Toronto, who happens to have that word as his surname.

This blog is not intended to be an anti-Ford rant. It is intended instead to observe the curious action of avoiding the work of being accountable while holding a position of leadership; an act that a great many public figures, especially those on the political stage, display. In metaphorical terms, wading across a stream of challenge instead of building a bridge to address the problem.

For example, one of the most curious actions displayed by Mayor Ford is his constant trifecta of ignoring, avoiding and deflecting. Journalists who ask questions that he deems unwelcome are simply ignored. They are seldom greeted with a “no comment,” nor are they handed off to a press secretary or other spokesperson. They are simply ignored as if they had never been asked. When a press scrum becomes too unwieldy, the back-door is used for quick egress; and when a question is asked directly, as was the case on the now infamous Jimmy Kimmel appearance, the response takes the form of a deflection, as in:

Question: “Is there any validity to these accusations of domestic abuse, drunk driving, racism, homophobia and inability to tell the truth?”

Answer: “Is that all I got? I guess they don’t talk about all the money I’ve saved.”

Mr. Ford is by no means alone in his attempts to obfuscate through distraction and avoidance. One need only think back to President Clinton’s “Lewinsky moment” in which the term “sexual relations” was hastily redefined for the world, or the blatantly incorrect statements that were made by presidential candidate Romney and others during the 2012 debates – fact-checked and responded to in seconds, not days by the viewing audience – a concept that still seems to mystify politicians of every stripe.

There seems to thrive in the heart of so many these public figures a hope or belief that one can exist moment by moment – hopping across a stream one rock at a time – relying on the short memory of the public to draw away lasting liabilities of what might have been said or inferred.

One may argue that this is sound political strategy, after all the public has been known to actually have a short memory. But this does not play out so well in a wired world, where everyone can communicate with each other and PR handlers are no longer in control of a politician’s total image and legacy. Memory is now supplanted by connection, and words and images now have a tendency to echo.

Toronto Mayor Ford in LA. Image credit: Mayors' own Twitter page.

Toronto Mayor Ford in LA. Image credit: Mayors’ own Twitter page.

Take this image, for example. This photo shows the mayor of Toronto’s biggest city (and North America’s fourth or fifth largest, depending who you ask) standing meekly at the back of a room in the Los Angeles City Hall, where a council meeting was taking place. The Mayor, who had decided to drop in unannounced to City Hall was apparently unaware that his counterpart, Mayor Garcetti, was out of town on a trade mission of his own; Mayor Ford had apparently chosen not to set up appointments with Mr. Garcetti or with any of the film industry power-players, who would likely have given him a few minutes, given his status as leader of “Hollywood North.”

The photo is in many ways more damning that any of those from Mr. Kimmel’s program, because a certain degree of deer-in-the-headlights is to be expected when seated as a guest on any nationwide talk show.  But the City Hall photo shows something far worse than that. It shows a leader without status.

Leaders, both political and corporate, need status more than fame or notoriety. Status establishes credibility. It strengthens relationships, and delivers comfort and confidence to a population, to an employee base and to a customer base.  Without the credibility that comes from being able to answer a question with calm assurance, leadership vanishes, and the foundations start to crumble.

An answer does not have to be the desired one to have this effect; it simply has to be strong. In 1970, during the October Crisis, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau answered the question on how far he would go to suspend civil liberties by saying, “Just watch me.” Whether you agreed or not with Mr. Trudeau either then or now, the point remains that he maintained a position of leadership and confidence. He kept his status.

As I observe the Ford brothers’ daily act of ducking questions and responding with vitriol against the messenger or against a growing collection of perceived political foes, I see two people grasping the air as their feet slip on the rocks they chance to step upon. A person can feel sorry when observing such an act, but at the same time can wonder why they didn’t do more to build a more solid structure.

Any politician or public figure who prides him/herself on being a people-person, must take stock that to be a people-person requires more than just a love of the role. As the expression goes, if you wish to be spontaneous in life, plan to be spontaneous. To appear great, you have to figure out what greatness means. To show up without a plan means banking on the energy of the moment and condemning oneself to a legacy of doubt and mistrust in the hearts of the very people you seek to embrace.

A great many lessons can be learned from this new act of fording, in fact the Ford brothers’ greatest legacy might become the case study material they can provide through their actions, words and messages, on how not to lead. Anyone interested in taking over the helm of a department, a company or a political territory would do well to observe the overall results of fording and choose for themselves how much or how little they wish to use these techniques to win the hearts and minds of the people who exist there.

To extend the metaphor one last time, fording a stream only succeeds in getting your feet wet, and very few people will be truly willing to follow.

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