See update from Sept. 30 below: Garcetti backtracks.
First published at 6 a.m. Sept. 29:
Mayor Eric Garcetti took the stage Monday at the Atlantic's CityLab conference and did what he does best — talked fluently for nearly 20 minutes without really saying anything. The event is hosted by the Aspen Institute and Bloomberg Philanthropies — it's sort of a second-tier Davos — so Garcetti adopted the high-minded jargon of the international elite.
Walter Isaacson, head of the Aspen Institute, set the tone with his first question: “What does it mean to be a public CEO rather than, quote, a mayor?” If your answer is, “That's nonsense,” then that's why you weren't invited to speak. Garcetti answered that a public CEO is “open-sourced,” and then compared himself to Elon Musk, which was the right answer.
Garcetti said only one thing that was genuinely embarrassing when held up to scrutiny…
Isaacson asked about encouraging an innovative culture within City Hall. Garcetti said that when dealing with his general managers, “You have to be able to follow from the front.”
He went on say that low-level employees should be able to “lead from the line.”
There's nothing necessarily wrong with encouraging front-line workers to solve problems. But “following from the front” is an unfortunate phrase.
The reference goes back to a 2011 New Yorker article in which an anonymous Obama adviser described the President's approach to Libya as “leading from behind.” Obama caught a lot of flack for that because it sounded passive and weak, and he was forced to distance himself from it. (“We lead from the front,” he told Jay Leno.)
Though there's a loose rhetorical parallel between the two phrases, “following from the front” actually sounds worse than “leading from behind,” when you think about it. It sounds a bit like someone making fun of Obama. But it isn't — it's Garcetti describing his own management style.
Again, nothing wrong with listening to your employees. But a leader — whether a mayor, a CEO, or a “public CEO” — is also supposed to… lead. Otherwise, what are you doing at “the front”?
The real problem with this phrase is that it encapsulates a common critique of the mayor's leadership style. Garcetti has a well-known problem defining his priorities. One week it's jobs, the next week it's poverty, and now it's civic engagement. He's all over the place. And now there's a crisp, alliterative explanation.
He's following from the front.
Update, Wednesday: Garcetti is seeking to distance himself from the phrase “follow from the front.” In an email today, Garcetti's spokesman, Jeff Millman, said that the phrase refers to Garcetti's instructions to his general managers, not the style he personally adheres to.
“Please correct your story and tweets, and promote them in the same manner as your original story, so your readers will not be fooled by your story,” Millman wrote.
Here, for the record, is the transcript:
Isaacson: “How do you inculcate and continue to nurture an innovative culture within City Hall?”
Garcetti: “Y'know, it has to be both top and bottom. I think, I've tried to, on my managers, figure out how we can, general managers, or as they call them in New York, commissioners, and our chiefs, I said you have to be able to, y'know, follow from the front. And for the worker down in the trenches, I want them to be able to lead from the line.”
The question was about Garcetti's personal approach, and in his response, Garcetti included himself in the group at the “top” — referring to managers as “we.” The L.A. Weekly stands by its story. Millman was also unable to characterize his boss's leadership style, or say how it might differ from his directive to his general managers.
However, the request does indicate that Garcetti sees the phrase “follow from the front” as problematic or even toxic, so that's progress.