A Matter of Leadership

By Frank Linnehan

A recent op-ed piece in the Inquirer by Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody’s Analytics, offered sound financial reasons why Philadelphia is unlikely to follow Detroit in filing for bankruptcy. Among the reasons cited were higher earnings per capita, a more diversified core of businesses in the health and education sectors, and a healthy respect for repaying public debt. To this list, let me add one more reason:

Community leadership that practices the kind of values that are the antithesis of moral or financial bankruptcy.

The headlines today are filled with stories about the antics of politicians and officials like Anthony Weiner, the former congressman and now mayoral candidate in New York City, and San Diego Mayor Bob Filner. These stories cause many of us to cringe, leaving us to question how such people ever became public leaders.

Fortunately, in Philadelphia today we don’t need to ask these types of questions. Yes, the city has had its share of political scandals over the years, but from the current mayoral administration to our leadership in for-profit and not-for-profit institutions, we are fortunate to have ethical leaders with strong values. Whether you agree with Mayor Nutter politically is not the question here; it would be difficult to argue that he doesn’t espouse the kind of values we respect in our political leadership.

The same thing can be said about the executive leadership of our educational institutions. All three presidents of the largest universities in the city share a common goal: to improve the neighborhoods in which their institutions reside. Presidents John Fry, Amy Gutmann, and Neil Theobald of, respectively, Drexel, Penn, and Temple, are all committed to being more than good neighbors. They are proactively improving the economic welfare of their communities.

The efforts of Penn and Temple are evidenced by the changes in their West and North Philadelphia neighborhoods, while Drexel’s work in Powelton Village and Mantua, and its planned Innovation

Neighborhood adjacent to 30th St. Station, will be transformative. This same commitment to the community is true of our local faith-based institutions such as Villanova, LaSalle, and St. Joseph’s.

An important part of leadership is going beyond getting people to understand why they are asked to do something. Leadership is most effective when the values of leaders and followers are in alignment. The leadership values that focus on others, and not on self-interests, are then translated into “doing the right thing.” For example, Lisa Nutter doesn’t just talk about improving education. She also serves as the president of the Philadelphia Academies Inc., a nonprofit that works with more than 3,500 high school students to help prepare them for their educational and professional careers.

In the private sector, there are many local leaders whose values we see manifested by their employees. Under president and chief executive officer Dan Hilferty, the Independence Blue Cross Foundation has provided more than $4.5 million in grants to the Philadelphia community, and its volunteers spent more than 9,700 hours in 200 projects. Under the leadership of Bill McNabb, the Vanguard community volunteers have taught more than 35,000 children through Junior Achievement. These are just two examples of the kind of leadership we have in our region’s private sector.

We hope to continue to foster such community leadership through a three-year fellowship program we’re creating at Drexel. With funding from John and Leigh Middleton, the program is designed to develop leaders who understand that complex community issues are best addressed not by a single institution or perspective, but by people who work together for the common good.

Yes, the case is strong that Philadelphia will not be filing for bankruptcy, but that’s not for economic reasons alone. The case is made even stronger because of the type of committed leaders we have in the city today. It is because of their efforts, and their example, that we won’t be following in Detroit’s footsteps any time soon.

Frank Linnehan is a professor of management and interim dean of the LeBow College of Business at Drexel University.

A shortened version of this opinion piece ran in the Philadelphia Inquirer on August 21, 2013. You can read it here.