Leadership Lessons From Buffalo, NY

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Paul Wolf

The Buffalo News recently rated the leadership qualities of Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz and Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown. Surveys were sent to 320 individuals identified by The Buffalo News as leaders in one of three sectors of the community: government and political; business; or community/civic sector, which includes religious, educational, and arts and cultural organizations, as well as neighborhood leaders.The News received responses from 154 individuals, an overall return rate of about 48 percent. There were 117 responses to the county executive survey, 128 to the mayoral survey.

With an overall score of a C, the Buffalo News summed up Mayor Brown’s results as “The mayor’s best grades in the 18 categories are for intellect, temperament, work ethic and fiscal management. His lowest are in his vision, willingness to take unpopular stands, transparency and accessibility.”

The News stated further:

“While keeping city finances in check in a tough economic climate and generally making City Hall more business friendly, the administration is also seen as steeped in politics, lacking vision and overly cautious – afraid to take the risks and tackle the tough issues that many movers and shakers believe must be confronted if Buffalo and the region it leads are to succeed.”

Survey responses included:

“The mayor is not being the driver, He’s comfortable in whatever seat he is in. To me, that is unfortunate. Sometimes you have to be the driver of the bus. As mayor, he needs to be in that position more.”

“He’s not a person you can talk to,” said a neighborhood group leader, who noted that a police officer guards the mayor’s door on the second floor of City Hall.

With an overall score of C+ the Buffalo News summed up County Executive Poloncarz’s results as: “He scored average or above average on each category. His top grades were in intelligence and work ethic. His lowest scores were for vision and temperament. That was hammered home by the top weaknesses cited – those related to his personality, a perceived lack of vision and a potential to be too partisan.”

Survey respondents stated the following about Poloncarz: “There’s no personality or charisma,” “Not friendly,” “Thinks he knows it all,” said another community leader. “He’s a bit too ‘my way or the highway,’.

A third survey asked respondents to rank 25 local leaders – as identified by The Buffalo News – on their relative effectiveness in moving the Buffalo Niagara region forward. Howard Zemsky, 53, according to the survey results is displaying the most leadership when it comes to moving the region forward.

Zemsky Had the vision and ability to transform a 100-year-old vacant 600,000 square foot warehouse into a unique office building with its own bank, restaurants, day-care center, fitness center, conference center and private taxi service. When he discussed undertaking the project which cost him millions of dollars of his own money “people looked at me like I was crazy,” stated Zemsky.

What does Zemsky have that Brown and Poloncarz don’t? According to the survey results:

- “He’s a dreamer” who turns his visions into reality”
- “He listens. He has a total proven record.”
- “He is one of the most selfless guys you’ll ever meet. He does things in an unassuming way.”
- “He’s open to different ways of looking at things,”

Prior to renovating the vacant warehouse, Zemsky worked for his family owned food business and he traveled the country, visiting delicatessens his company served. He talked to store employees about deli meats and asked their views on his company.

“I learned some of the best ideas came from the deli clerks,” he said. The lesson, he said, was the importance of being a good listener. Good ideas, he said, come from people of all ages, races, job statuses and incomes. “If you exclude anyone based on anything, you are missing good ideas,” Zemsky said.

C grade leadership is not going to cut it for any community. Over and over I see elected officials who think they know everything, and who are not open to new ideas. Unfortunately it seems very few elected officials have the leadership qualities of Mr. Zemsky. Hopefully your community is getting better leadership than C grade.

www.reinventinggov.org

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