James Bennet recently visited New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg as part of The Atlantic’s profile of leaders who are taking risks for big ideas. The billionaire mayor had unique insights on leadership and why listening to polls is not only antithetical to leadership—but unethical as well.
The wide-ranging interview covered Bloomberg's reaction to opponents of his soda ban, his belief that leaders are obligated to tackle the tough stuff first and how being able to sleep at night drives his approach to governing.
The following are excerpts from Bennet’s transcript:
On his reaction to the widespread opposition, in public polls, to his soda restrictions:
To some extent, it is [that] everybody is resistant to change. Today, you’d be hard-pressed to find anybody that was opposed to the smoking ban … All of western Europe followed New York City. Many of the states around here did. Every major city, including in the tobacco-growing states in the United States, did. Brazil is smoke-free. Mexico City is smoke-free. All of France, Italy, Spain, England—they’re all smoke-free.
It takes a while. Leadership is about doing what you think is right and then building a constituency behind it. It is not doing a poll and following from the back. If you want to criticize the political process—and it’s probably true throughout history, and certainly not just in the United States—I think it’s fair to say, in business or in government, an awful lot of leaders follow the polls.
And that’s not the way to win. I happen to think it’s not ethical, or right, and not your obligation. But I don’t even think it’s good business or politics, because people aren’t good at describing what is in their own interest … What leaders should do is make decisions as to what they think is in the public interest based on the best advice that they can get, and then try and build a constituency and bring it along.
The public, I believe—and I’ve always thought this—is much more likely to follow if the public believes that you are genuine … George W. Bush, who I don’t agree with on a lot of things, I think he got elected and reelected because the public thought he was genuine. They think his father was genuine. Jeb—I know [him] very well; he’s on the board of my foundation—he is genuine, they believe.
And Al Gore and John Kerry tried to be on both sides of every issue. “I voted for the war, but not to fund it.” And that’s Mitt Romney’s problem, I think. He walked away from everything he did. He actually was a pretty good governor of Massachusetts, where I come from. I think that’s a losing strategy, to not have values. I think the public wants you to have them and will respect you for them. They may carp a little bit, but in the end, that’s the kind of person they want. They want somebody who has real conviction.
On why high approval ratings mean you’re failing:
If I finish my term in office … and have high approval ratings, then I wasted my last years in office. That high approval rating means you don’t upset anybody. High approval rating means you’re skiing down the slope and you never fall. Well, you’re skiing the baby slope, for goodness’ sakes. Go to a steeper slope. You always want to press, and you want to tackle the issues that are unpopular, that nobody else will go after.
On the president’s communication with the press:
I talk to the press five days a week … The president—how often does he talk to the press? His press secretary talks to the press every day, okay. But I happen to think the public should demand he should. I think he should; I think that’s his job.
On doing the tough stuff first:
In an election year, just before the election, maybe I cut you a break. Where I don’t cut you a break is the day after the election. I believe you do the tough stuff first. Why? Number one, you have an obligation to those who voted for you, to do what you promised. Number two, if you believe they’re the right things, you need some time to let them work out, adjust them, explain them, maybe cancel and change them—or whatever—before the next election.
And remember, I have a four-year term; presidents have a two-year term, because the midterm elections are so important.
On whether he could possibly have really meant it when he said earlier in the interview that he would be satisfied exiting with a low approval rating:
Yeah, but it depends on your definition of “approval rating.” If your approval rating is the polls, I don’t care. Number one, incidentally, if you go out with low approval ratings, six months later it’s like you’re dead. Everybody loves you once you’re dead. So that’ll come back right away. If the approval rating is the most important poll: I get up in the morning, I gotta look in the mirror. Before I go to bed, I’ve gotta turn off the light. I said this one time and the press made fun of me, but you’ve gotta like what you see. How would it be to go to bed ashamed of what you did? Or having to lie to yourself?
You know, I come home and I always say—and my kids don’t live with me anymore; they’re adults—but you’ve gotta be able to come home and explain to your kids what you did that day, without shading it or hiding it. If you find yourself finding a clever way of [talking] to your kids that really doesn’t tell the truth but gets you through the answer, what kind of person are you if you want to do that? And there’s also the—what’s the word I’m looking for?—validation of people you respect. In the public-health area, Tom Farley, our public-health commissioner, Tom Frieden of CDC, if Al Sommer, formerly the dean of the Bloomberg School of Public Health—if those people think you did a good job, the fact that the public might not? Okay, come on, who would you rather have in your court?