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Need Advice on How to Run Rebuild LA? Try 16th-Century Italy

June 01, 1993|DANIEL AKST

With the resignation of Peter Ueberroth as co-chairman, Rebuild LA is down to a fighting weight of four co-chairs and 80 board members. Thus streamlined, the organization that sprang up after the Los Angeles riots is now said to be mulling a restructuring.

Given that it seems to be engaged in some reflection about how best to order itself, nothing could be more appropriate than for the board to call in an expert. Personally, I suggest the noted Italian management consultant Niccolo Machiavelli, who brings to the table not just expertise but diversity. Rebuild LA does not in fact include a single dead white male.

Machiavelli was no prince, of course. Like so many in his line of work, he only became a consultant when a tough new CEO (by the name of Medici) cleaned house. And sensitivity training never had much effect on Machiavelli; the corporate culture he understood was red in tooth and claw.

Nevertheless, Machiavelli's insights into the perils and powers of leadership are valuable enough that he is still widely read, and not just by budding tyrants.

Consulting Machiavelli, for example, Ueberroth would have learned that when you try to exercise power "in a province differing in language, laws and customs, the difficulties to be overcome are great," and perhaps the best way to succeed is "for the new ruler to take up his residence there." Especially if he is from Newport Beach.

Then again, Machiavelli might have warned him off the whole project: "There is nothing more difficult to carry out, nor more doubtful of success, nor more dangerous to handle, than to initiate a new order of things."

That is something to bear in mind for the restructuring. Machiavelli is hard to reach these days, but based on his previous advice, it is not difficult to put together an agenda for reform at RLA.

First, someone--anyone--take charge. Machiavelli said a leader must be like the lion and the fox; he didn't say anything about committees. The four remaining co-chairs ought to draw straws; short straw becomes chief executive. Everyone else gets lost.

Next, the new CEO must surround himself with people who will be brutally honest: "If he finds that anyone has scruples in telling him the truth, he should be angry," Machiavelli writes.

Even with the best of advisers, the new chair will be in a tough spot. His job is to do good, but by being too nice he is not likely to accomplish anything. "A man who wishes to make a profession of goodness in everything," Machiavelli wrote, "must necessarily come to grief among so many who are not good. Therefore, it is necessary . . . to learn how not to be good, and to use this knowledge and not use it, according to the necessity of the case."

So once the co-chairs are gone, find a way to free yourself of the 80 board members, well-intentioned though they may be. Perhaps meetings should be held only once a year, far away. Or perhaps the board should be doubled, the better to neutralize it. The point of Rebuild LA, after all, isn't patronage and palaver. It's to, well, rebuild Los Angeles.

Actually, that is a notion you will want to disabuse people of right away. Take a page from our consultant's book of public relations: "The conqueror must arrange to commit all his cruelties at once."

Announce that you can't possibly Rebuild LA; America's urban woes have taken decades to accrete and will not yield to a year of good intentions. Such frankness, after what has come before, will have enormous popular appeal and make the new chair's job that much easier.

"It is necessary for a prince to possess the friendship of the people," Machiavelli reminds. "Otherwise he has no resources in times of adversity."

A much wiser goal for Rebuild LA is simply to do some good, and by that measure it can already proclaim itself a success. Perhaps it might even be renamed Improve LA.

Once the new organization is in place, the new chair can focus on what actually ought to be done. The emphasis so far seems to be on bringing jobs to the inner city. That is worthwhile, especially to the extent that it results in increased services and opportunities for inner city residents.

But is a lack of local jobs really the problem? The average Southern Californian commutes 16 miles to work each way, according to the South Coast Air Quality Management District. Even the bleakest portions of Los Angeles are within 16 miles of probably millions of jobs.

If the problem is an inefficient market, then establish a clearinghouse to help inner city residents get information about jobs within commuting distance.

If the problem is transportation, set up a revolving fund to make low-interest car loans. Work on the RTD to make sure people from poor neighborhoods have alternatives. Run a van service, if necessary.

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