Federal Coach

By Tom Fox, VP for Leadership and Innovation, Partnership for Public Service

Blog archive

Federal Coach: Bringing a city back from rock bottom

(Fox's Federal Coach column was originally published on The Washington Post On Leadership site.)

Tom Murphy was the mayor of Pittsburgh from 1994 to 2006, often engendering controversy as he helped revitalize the beleaguered steel town. He is now a senior resident fellow at the Urban Land Institute.

Murphy discussed his passion for public service as well as the need for leaders to challenge the status quo and take risks during a conversation with Tom Fox. The conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

What drew you to public service?

My wife and I went into the Peace Corps after college and worked in a remote village in Paraguay. It fundamentally changed our lives. We became interested in what it means to create a community in terms of the tangible aspects of housing, health centers and schools, and the intangibles such as how people build a common vision and work together.

I carried this fascination to the north side of Pittsburgh to run a neighborhood preservation group in the mid-1970s. I ended up running for the state legislature, in part because I thought the political system wasn’t responsive to issues of neighborhood concern. To everybody’s surprise, I won. I later went through the same exercise in running for mayor of Pittsburgh.

When you became mayor in 1994, Pittsburgh was going through many challenges. Can you provide some of the context for what you faced?

Pittsburgh was the industrial center of the world during World War II and of the United States through the 1960s and the late 1970s. By the early 1980s, the bottom had fallen out of the steel industry and Pittsburgh hit rock bottom. Unemployment was at about 20 percent, and about 50,000 people a year were leaving the region. We were one of the most environmentally degraded and the most economically depressed places in America. Fast forward to today. Pittsburgh is ranked in Forbes and the Economist magazines as one of the most livable cities in America.

How did this happen?

The neighborhoods, universities, the government and the business leadership worked together on a common vision and took big risks. When I became mayor, I needed to make a fundamental decision of whether I was just going to manage decline or whether I could imagine a city that would be growing again. We initially reduced the number of people working for the city and diverted the savings to fund a $60 million bond issue, so we could invest and try to grow. We got the corporations and foundations to raise another $40 million. There was no city in America that committed $100 million to investing in the future at that time.

Your leadership style has been described as visionary and vexing. Does that ring true?

If you want to make big changes, you need to love conflict and have an appetite for risk. Everybody who has a stake in the old order is going to work to keep it; and those who might benefit from a new order either do not know or do not trust what’s going to happen, so they’re going to sit on their hands and do nothing or they are going to oppose it.

You have very few friends when you’re trying to make big changes. You can do it incrementally and collaboratively, but you’re not rocking the boat a whole lot. And in Pittsburgh, there needed to be a sense of urgency. Our view was that we would listen, but we were moving forward and we weren’t going to stall.

What advice to you have for federal leaders who want to innovate?

Take risks. It’s very hard for people in government — people get locked into a way of doing business — but you always need to ask whether the way you’re doing things is the best way to serve the people. As a mayor, I had some political power. If you are a leader of a government agency, you have some power, but maybe not what you need to change the trajectory of the organization. So you need to be smart about how you organize yourself and your department to get change.

What are some of the lessons you learned that might benefit federal leaders?

You need to know where you want to go, and you need good people. It’s the leader’s job to set the vision and figure out how everybody is going to play their part and then give people room. I was not a good day-to-day manager, but I recruited good people and showed them where we were going. People need to know what the vision is before they’re willing to do something. That’s the challenge. I’ve worked with agencies that are tied into today and they don’t have an aspiration of where they ought to be going in the future.

What advice do you have for federal agencies on working with cities?

Federal agencies can be hugely helpful as partners by challenging cities to define their mission and to come up with a clear plan on how to use federal resources, but also giving some flexibility to permit innovation to happen.

What is the best approach to managing through difficult times?

If people have a sense of what you’re trying to achieve and they see some light at the end of the tunnel, they will focus on the destination. People are willing to do extraordinary things when they believe in the vision and recognize they can sacrifice now and the future will provide better opportunities. I’m a believer in government as an inspiration for hope. I’m a John F. Kennedy protégé. I believe government can create great communities and a great country.

Posted by Tom Fox, VP for Leadership and Innovation, Partnership for Public Service on Feb 18, 2015 at 11:38 AM

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