New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu on Leadership

On May 21, 2006, Mitch Landrieu faced an unenviable decision. The day before, he’d lost his bid to become mayor of New Orleans. He was largely favored to win the race, but the city’s racial tension and turmoil after Hurricane Katrina ultimately favored his opponent. Now, he had to face the aftermath. “The night after I lost, I decided I was going to go to work the next day,” Mr. Landrieu recalled, “I didn’t pick up my marbles and go home. I said ‘How else can I be helpful?’” He spent the next four years dedicating himself to the recovery of his city. He was Lieutenant Governor of Louisiana at the time, and used his office to liaise between FEMA and local governments. Four years later, he ran again. This time, he won.

Mayor Landrieu is now at the end of his eight years as mayor of New Orleans. On February 15, 2018, he spoke at the Harvard Kennedy School as part of the Center for Public Leadership’s Lessons in Leadership series. Stephen Goldsmith, HKS Daniel Paul Professor of the Practice of Government and former mayor of Indianapolis, moderated the conversation. During the discussion, Mayor Landrieu shared the lessons he had learned in his career as a public servant.

After his defeat in 2006, Mayor Landrieu told his audience, his decision to stay in New Orleans was not part of a plan to run again four years later.
It was the second time he’d run and the second time he’d lost. After the embarrassment of the defeat it was the furthest thing from his mind. Yet from a young age, Mayor Landrieu had a strong conviction that he should “go … where [he could] do the greatest amount of good for the greatest number of people in the shortest period of time.” His constituents saw his authenticity and his effectiveness. Looking back, Mayor Landrieu sees that it was his dedication that eventually propelled him to victory. At the time, though, he was focused on helping his city.

The ethos of selfless leadership was instilled in him when he was in high school. He had decided not to run for student body president despite the urgings of his teachers. A furious Father Harry Thompson found him later that day in drama practice. “You have what it takes to lead this student body and it wasn’t a gift to you,” Father Thompson told him, “It was something you were supposed to give to them. You’ve evaded your responsibility.” Every since, Mayor Landrieu said, he’s tried to follow the priest’s advice. “All great leaders do what they do to help other people,” he asserted, “When they do it to serve other interests … they generally lead in the wrong direction.”

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Mayor Landrieu took over the city of New Orleans at a difficult time. Recovery from Hurricane Katrina had stalled. Residents were frustrated by the continued displacement of large swaths of poor Louisianans. While such “pent up frustration,” as he described it, helped propel him to victory, it made governing difficult. “There were a lot of things to be done,” he explained “The challenge was which to do first. That’s the thing with a catastrophe—everything looks the same, and not everything can be done at once.”

Here, the discussion moved from the “why” of leadership to the “how.”  Mayor Landrieu followed several rules of thumb to manage the conflict, many of which initially alienated his base of support.. First, he decided that he didn’t care if he was re-elected (he “kind of cared,” he said, but he “didn’t act like it”). This let him focus on long-term recovery rather than soothing immediate pain. “The hardest thing to do was to get people to see themselves not as they were before the storm hit, but to ask themselves what was wrong with the city before Katrina hit,” he reflected. To make lasting positive change, Mayor Landrieu had to convince his city “to stay in agony for a longer period of time than we normally would.”

He surrounded himself with a team of deputy mayors who were experts in their fields. He hired based on competence rather than connections, and employed independent contractors for their efficacy, not their relationship with the mayor’s office. He stopped over-funding two locally- and minority-owned garbage disposal businesses, an unpopular decision with his base of African American support. He forced the police department to stop overspending their budget. He cut the city budget by over 20 percent in his first year. Short term, the newly-elected Mayor Landrieu caused his constituents a lot of discomfort.

The motivating force that kept him on track was his devotion to Miss Mae, a fictional representation of the average New Orleans resident. Miss Mae is a 62 year old African American woman who lives in public housing. “I put her at the table,” Mayor Landrieu said, “I told my people ‘Whenever you give me a recommendation, you have to say how it affects Miss Mae.’” He decided that the long term recovery of the city was in Miss Mae’s best interest.

Asked how he balances short term infrastructure needs with long term, more big-picture fixes, Mayor Landrieu shared another leadership lesson: “If you have enough money, manpower, and time, you can fix anything.” If you don’t have one of these, he cautioned, you can’t fix anything. Cities that are largely low-income, like New Orleans, don’t have the tax resources to build infrastructure. The Miss Maes of New Orleans don’t have any extra money to spare, so neither does the city. Mayor Landrieu learned to hold constituents accountable for the projects they wanted. When people ask for a project, he asks them what part of it is theirs, and if they’re willing to take ownership of it.

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As he reflected on his time as mayor, Mayor Landrieu certainly had regrets. He wishes he could have further improved the sewage and drainage system. Continuing leaks are causing destruction all over the city. He’s in the process of building a new airport, which won’t be done until he’s out of office. New Orleans is facing the challenge of gentrification. Many poor residents were never able to return after the hurricane, and those who replaced them were more affluent. Finding the balance between promoting growth and keeping the city affordable for long-term residents is something he wishes he’d started earlier in his term. Overall, though, Mayor Landrieu is proud of his city and proud of the time he spent leading it.

Mayor Landrieu left his HKS audience with two pieces of advice. The first was to keep an open mind about local government. “The action is on the street,” he said, “That’s where the creativity is. That’s where the entrepreneurship is.” Lastly, he encouraged them once again to follow the advice of Father Thompson: “Go to the place where you can do the greatest good in the shortest amount of time in the most impactful way.”