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December 1, 2005 -- Mark Satin, Editor

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg:
Warrior, philosopher . . . leader?

by John Avlon

New York City’s Republican Mayor Mike Bloomberg won a second term in a landslide last month . . . in a town where Democrats outnumber Republicans by a 4-to-1 margin.

Now endowed with the political legitimacy reserved for reelected office holders, Bloomberg nonetheless remains an enigmatic leader.

Before his unprecedented advertising blitz began in the spring, Bloomberg had never been above a 50% approval rating and was losing in polls to his eventual Democrat opponent, Fernando Ferrer. His policies do not betray the stamp of an obvious philosophy, and his support is broad but not deep.

Despite a healthy ego and instinct for self-promotion (Bloomberg LLC, Bloomberg Radio, etc.), he remains somewhat murky if well-liked as mayor: modest and competent, but ideologically undefined.

When I asked his longtime press secretary Ed Skyler about his boss's political philosophy, Skyler shot back with a grin, "He has one?"

Some people are luckier than others, but it's hard to believe that a man who has earned $4 billion and twice been elected mayor of America's largest city has fallen sideways into his Gotham-sized success.

While Bloomberg the mayor has kept his political vision close to the vest, Bloomberg the businessman was far less coy. The principles that have guided his rise are laid out in his oft-forgotten 1997 autobiography, the modestly titled Bloomberg by Bloomberg.

It reads as sort of a primer for an aspiring philosopher-king, a chronicle of a media mogul's climb from middle class roots in Medford, Massachusetts. ("My father was an accountant at a dairy, my mother a woman of liberal views with an independent mind.") Bloomberg presents himself as the Boy Scout and fraternity president turned statistics-driven billionaire.

The Tao of Bloomberg

Despite his belief in the calming presence of fish tanks in the office, Bloomberg is one of the least Zen people imaginable—he loves material success and good red wine; one of his favorite movies is the Will Ferrell comedy “Old School.” But there is a duality to his management style that perhaps recalls the two Tzus: Sun Tzu, the general who wrote The Art of War, and Lao Tzu, the feudal court philosopher who wrote the Tao Te Ching.

On the one hand, there is Bloomberg the warrior who overpowers his political opponents; on the other there is the above-the-fray chief executive, calmly preaching compromise and conciliation.

The result is a city hypnotized, and an overwhelming reelection.

Lao Tzu might have anticipated Bloomberg's reelection campaign when he wrote, "The Master leads by … Preferring simplicity and freedom from desires, / avoiding the pitfalls of knowledge and wrong action. / For those who practice not-doing, / everything will fall into place."

There was an effortless momentum behind Bloomberg's $100 million dollar incumbent strategy, but dig below the surface and this is more than just the triumph of the technocrat. Bloomberg in fact has a broad philosophy that guides his decisions in office.

In an era of pop-psychology books on the leadership styles of everyone from Attila the Hun to Santa Claus, maybe it is time for a pamphlet-size collection of Bloomberg's management philosophy, sort of a “Tao of Bloomberg,” in seven parts. . . .

1. "Don't screw it up"

Great mayors cultivate catch-phrases that become shorthand for their respective New Yorks.

Rudy defiantly called the city "the capital of the world" when many doubted it. Dinkins saw us a multi-cultural "gorgeous mosaic." By asking "How'm I doing," Koch gave his face to what had been the ungovernable and impersonal city. Lindsay gravitated to the superficial glamour of "Fun City." LaGuardia famously said that "there is no Democrat or Republican way to clean the streets."

Bloomberg has "Don't screw it up."

This brusque advice to new staffers is more representative of his leadership style than it may at first sound. It captures the man's bottom-line driven lack of sentiment, his dry humor and his admitted "glass half full" view of life.

Bloomberg believes in setting broad targets, and then delegating the daily details. Accountability comes in the form of numbers: he is the accountant's son, the born statistician who wants all problems broken down for his analysis. The underling's goals are essentially negative—do what it takes and don't screw it up.

The boss doesn't care about the drama as long as the numbers are moving in the right direction. He understands that results matter far more than excuses—Abe Beame and David Dinkins may have been delightful dinner companions, but it can take only four years to screw up a city. And Bloomberg doesn't like being listed with losers.

2. "The rewards almost always go to those who outwork the others”

In a city of strivers, Bloomberg is our workaholic-in-chief.

This is a man who called a chapter of his book "I Love Mondays," writing that "Sunday night was my favorite because I knew when I awoke the next morning I'd have five full days of fun at the office."

Part of his personal romance with New York seems to be rooted in his years as a young single stockbroker. He brags, "I set new records in burning the candle at both ends.… Even now, decades later and a bit wiser, I still think the perfect day is one where I am hopelessly overscheduled."

3. "I know what I don't know"

In one of the book's stranger passages, Bloomberg proclaims, "I'm a human Beware of Dog sign. Programmers never know whether I really understand just as they don't know whether there's a pit bull behind that door." He knows what he doesn't know, and has a long history of hiring experts to compensate.

Case in point: Police Commissioner Ray Kelly, a man who'd done the job before, both in New York and at the Federal level as head of the Customs Department. Back in 2001, it was widely believed that in a post-Giuliani New York, crime rates would inevitably rise. But Kelly kept in place key elements of Giuliani's crime-fighting strategy such as the CompStat system, while adding counter-terror contacts from the CIA.

The results speak for themselves: Four years after the attacks of September 11th, New York remains the safest large city in America.

4. "Never look back"

In his book, Bloomberg describes himself as "a wealthy Democrat who has given consistently to my party" and then launches into a monologue about how "party allegiance" is "important." But once he left the Democrats he never looked back.

Because Bloomberg is not invested in partisan political debates he is free to govern above the fray. At a time when religious influence in politics is on the rise, Bloomberg remains defiantly secular—even questioning the wisdom of marriage, the political equivalent of apple pie.

There is likewise an engineer's detachment to his style of civic management: "Somebody has to bring us to a centralist consensus, acceptable to most, with a minimal imposition on those at the fringes. That is what politics is all about."

While Bloomberg may be a Republican in Name Only (“RINO”), conservative allegations that he is essentially a liberal democrat don't ring true either. The socialist-summer-camp crowd that was once the backbone of New York's liberal establishment would have viewed Bloomberg with the special contempt reserved for capitalist plutocrats.

In turn, Bloomberg has no patience for the anti-business instincts of the far-left: "You can hope the government tries to equalize with Robin Hood tax policies and throw some money your way. Unfortunately, every time it has been tried in the past, all went down to the lowest level—not up to the highest one. . . .

“The communists tried to eliminate any form of meritocracy for 70 years, and in addition to wrecking their economies, they literally starved 50 million people to death in the process." These are not the sentiments of a misty liberal, but of an unrepentant capitalist.

But Bloomberg does not share most businessmen's instinctive hatred of taxation, perhaps explaining why he did not lose much sleep over his property-tax hike. "Forget worrying over taxes. More people do more stupid things trying to avoid the inevitable than they can count. Our country gave you the opportunity—now pay back your share and get on with it."

5. “Go into contests with an advantage”

For all these more reflective philosophical traits, though, there's more of the hard-nosed general to Mayor Mike than his nasal New England accent and uncharismatic public persona would suggest. It brings to mind Sun Tzu's saying that "In war the victorious strategist only seeks battle after the victory has been won, whereas he who is destined to defeat first fights and afterwards looks for victory."

Bloomberg has said much the same: "We do not want fair fights. We want to go in contests with an advantage."

That's how he built Bloomberg, LLP. That's how he ran for mayor, twice, spending more than $150 million.

The man is an unsentimental strategist who picks battles he can win. He didn't blink in his effort to get former City Council minority leader Tom Ognibene booted from the Republican primary. He kept up a furious ad blitz against Fernando Ferrer, running up the numbers until the polls closed. Why? As Sun Tzu said, "Security against defeat implies defensive tactics; ability to defeat the enemy means taking the offensive."

Bloomberg bombarded every community with native-language ads and on-air testimonies from celebrity Democrats. His campaign spending may not win many points for sportsmanship, but who cares when history is written by the victors?

6. "Companies in the end need direction, not discussion"

The Bloomberg Administration has been lauded for its Democratic approach and apparent preference for consensus. But there is a pit bull in the bull pen.

"You can't run governments or companies successfully by polling or asking for suggestions," Bloomberg wrote. "Someone must have a vision and take others along, not the reverse."

Bloomberg manages change through negotiation if possible, imposition if necessary. Major policy goals that he deems as in the greater good—like banning smoking in bars without mentioning it in his first campaign—needed to be imperiously imposed to be eventually accepted. While such a decision flew in the face of New York's reputation as a haven for personal choice, polls show that the city ultimately came to support the measure.

7. "Loyalty is everything"

Beneath his Upper East Side civility, Bloomberg has cultivated a cut-throat aspect to his personality that is particularly evident in his treatise when he gets to the subject of corporate loyalty: "God forbid one of our people go to work for a competitor. Then we all heartily and cordially really do hope they fail. In their new job they have an avowed purpose to hurt their old coworkers. They've become bad people. Period. We have a loyalty to us. Leave and you're them."

In another passage, he described competitors as "plotting to take the food from our children's mouths."

If this sounds like Tony Soprano on a bender, recall that his administration has had admirably little turnover to date.

Ratchet up the risks?

So now, after being returned to office in an historic election, the mayor enters the realm of local legend—the self-made billionaire who achieved equally stratospheric success in public service. The question the mayor needs to answer for himself and the city is what he wants to do with all his freshly minted political capital.

It is time for Bloomberg to ratchet up the risks.

In his first term, he played it safe and was successful. Now he should be the aggressive reformer our city needs.

He owes fewer political debts than any mayor imaginable. The boy scout and the statistician, the general and the philosopher within Bloomberg must come together to reach beyond such essential but defensive goals as keeping crime on the decline. We need leadership, not just management.

That means taking on the tough underlying issues that always threaten to throw our city into civic chaos—the unsupportable size and cost of the city government, the clubhouse corruption that corrodes everything from judges to city contracts, the closed political system that makes New York below the mayor's office function like a one-party monopoly. Successors will be unlikely to have the political freedom or will to take on these issues.

Beholden to no one, Bloomberg has the freedom—does he have the will?

Don't screw it up.


John Avlon, b. 1973, worked on Bill Clinton's re-election campaign, then was Mayor Giuliani's chief speechwriter from 1997-2001.  He is the author of Independent Nation (Crown / Random House, pbk. 2005).


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