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A Mayor in Sneakers: Right Leader for a City Reeling from Disaster : Quake: Riordan has been touching, holding and reassuring the people. Will his ability to get things done become the basis for a vision?

January 30, 1994|Xandra Kayden | Xandra Kayden, a visiting scholar at the Center for Politics and Economics at the Claremont Colleges, is the author of "Surviving Power" (Free Press).

Great tragedy frequently spawns great leadership. But though Los Angeles is recovering from the Northridge earthquake, it is not because the mayor has burst forth as a knight in shining armor to lead us through the dust of the trembling Earth. Rather, we have had a mayor in sneakers, turning up at one disaster site after another, day after day, to touch, hold and reassure shaken children and adults.

For Richard Riordan, the quake and its aftermath have provided an extraordinary opportunity to learn what works and what doesn't work in city government. They may even help him craft a vision for the city, something he has, so far, not been able to do.

Admittedly, it is difficult to assess Riordan's leadership by more conventional standards. The mayor is not entirely responsible for the functioning of the Fire Department or the Department of Water and Power, or all the city agencies that have risen to this extraordinary occasion. Still, Riordan has been quite effective in getting to work on the tasks at hand--tasks that are clear and whose goals are shared by all. His political power is growing by leaps and bounds.

But is he evolving into a more effective leader in a city whose preference for a weak mayor is written into law?

Last year, CORO, the national leadership training program, asked two groups of people living in Southern California to define leadership. One group was composed of neighborhood residents, the other of leaders. Each drew up a list of 10 qualities associated with leadership that they valued most.

On six qualities--good listener, vision, respect for others, risk-taker, integrity and the ability to delegate--the two groups concurred. The neighborhood groups also valued leaders who are open-minded, compassionate, self-confident and good communicators, all facets of character, except for the last quality. The leaders valued the ability to motivate, to get things done, charisma and the ability to inspire--qualities that emphasize links with others.

One of the more interesting findings was that the farther leaders get from their communities--the more successful they are in climbing the ladder of power--the weaker their relationships to their constituents are perceived to become. Doubts about them creep in--partly because of the perceived increase in political distance, partly because the higher the office, the more vulnerable the officeholder is to media scrutiny. Television strips away that quality of charisma that enables us to believe that someone else is better, smarter, more blessed than the rest of us.

Yet, in the aftermath of the worst quake in modern L.A. history, television seems to have brought Riordan closer to us, closing the distance--and thus the trust gap--between him and us. In terms of the CORO study, Riordan has been seen in the neighborhood, listening, then calling on his car phone to give orders. This, more than anything else, may account for his high approval ratings in the weeks since the quake struck.

A modern, urbane society, we may come to recognize, is not run by one knight but thousands of knights, some on horseback, some on mules, some just walking their blocks.

We have a vision of a Los Angeles that works: traffic moving on the freeways, homes rebuilt, safety and security from the elements and each other, a recovered economy.

Riordan is doing an extraordinary job in helping make those things happen, and while words and sentences are not his strong suit, he does convey a sense of purpose and ability. When he stumbles over the words, well, maybe his lack of slickness makes him more like us, closer to home, someone to be trusted.

People want leaders to be close to them--to listen to them, to be connected to them, to assure them. It's hard to do that in an urban setting, which may be why leaders place more stress on communication.

The earthquake brought the mayor out into his city, back to the people. We have watched him assume responsibility, take risks and try to get things done. That is leadership by any measure, and those traits are among Riordan's greatest strengths.

Learning what works and what doesn't may enable Riordan to see a better vision, and that will be the measure of greatness--if he can bring us along with him.

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