Why Rob Ford is a model of leadership every CEO should learn from

By evoke
December 23, 2010

To us, there is no mystery as to why Rob Ford is the new mayor of Toronto. Although we have never met him, and he has no clue who we are, he conducted his campaign according to Blueprint principles. To a majority of Torontonians, his message was inspiring, single-minded and simple.

Ford’s campaign was summarized in four simple words: “stop the gravy train”. This line resonated with voters enough to give him a landslide victory. The power of his tagline wasn’t just that it addressed fiscal responsibility, it tapped into an underlying anger with the Miller era at City Hall that people perceived as arrogant and dismissive. Ford’s victory was a rebuke to ALL of City Hall, a place that voters had come to see as serving only itself and not the people of the city. “Stop the gravy train” was symbolic of the broader anger and was Ford’s single-minded pathway into this motherload of discontent.

If you compare Ford’s platform to that of any other major candidate, you would likely conclude that theirs had more breadth and depth. They were certainly less racist and homophobic. What the others didn’t have was a crystallizing thought, an overarching theme that captured people’s imaginations. They came across as having a lot of detail and intelligence, but that isn’t enough in the face of an inspiring “vision”.

How people listen

To understand why Ford’s message resonated, and the others didn’t, we need to look at how people listen. If all you give them is details, they try to stitch them together to create a bigger picture. This is a risky proposition if you are the communicator because people too often don’t get the message you intended to send. In other words, their “stitching together” doesn’t lead them to the conclusion you want. If you give them the big picture in the beginning, they will hear all of the detail within that context. It’s as if you’re giving them a filter to listen through that helps them make sense of the detail.

People gravitated to Ford because his “vision” – stop the gravy train – was a filter that resonated with people, and one through which they came to view the entire election, not just Ford’s campaign. The power of Ford’s filter is that when they heard something they liked, they listened and understood and agreed, and when they heard something they didn’t like, such as his lying about his run-ins with the law or being drunk and obnoxious in public, they dismissed it. The negative stuff didn’t fit with the filter so people just ignored it.

You can argue that his stop the gravy train “vision” is pretty narrow, if a vision at all. But what you can’t argue is that it was a singular message that inspired a lot of people and it gave them a filter through which to hear what he was saying. He stuck to his story, selling it like crazy, no matter how hard people tried to knock him off message. People understood exactly what he stood for, liked it, and voted for him in droves.

Whether you agree with Ford or not, he is a case study in important principles for leadership success. We believe it is the mandate of all CEOs to sell their compelling vision aggressively to lead and inspire their people to perform to their full potential. In this role, a CEO’s primary leadership tool is communication, so what they say and how they say it is critical. But even before that, a CEO has to have a clear and compelling idea of who their organization is in order communicate a vision that resonates. The CEO’s compelling vision becomes the filter through which everyone – executive team, employees, suppliers and especially customers (or voters!) – thinks about and buys into the company.

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