Leadership is more than just showing up

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Crises define leadership.

We learned last week that Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s approval rating soared following the I-35W Mississippi River bridge collapse. Faced with calamity, Pawlenty sprinted toward the scene of death and destruction. His numbers, meaning his polled public performance approval measure, reflected his action.

Opinion: Leadership is more than just showing up

After rains deluged southeastern Minnesota, Pawlenty donned a handsome navy blue Department of Public Safety windbreaker, toured the area, activated the National Guard and declared an emergency.

It was the prudent, necessary thing to do. Every governor would do the same.

People like that. It makes us feel secure, knowing that our elected leaders understand the magnitude of a crisis. Leaders like it, too. Walking through a disaster area, accompanied by a weary but determined senior uniformed peace officer, leaders visually lead, something that rarely happens in daily governance.

That first blush, though, sometimes wears poorly, and strong approval can wilt under the close scrutiny that follows great disasters.

Ten years ago, I was working for the late Congressman Bruce Vento when a torrential downpour smacked St Paul’s East Side. Then-Mayor Norm Coleman, now Minnesota’s senior U.S. senator, leapt to action, declaring that no stone would be left unturned to help the displaced families.

Since most homeowners’ insurance policies cover basement flooding from a sewer system backup but not from rain, a handful of working class families were screwed. They faced staggering repair bills that, in a few cases, exceeded their homes’ value.

In Vento’s office, we were making government’s wheels turn faster, engaging federal agency assistance. It was exceptionally unglamorous work. We were well beyond hugs, offering, instead, federal claims forms and emergency direct-to-provider phone numbers.

I stopped by the neighborhood every day or two, just to monitor progress. Sometimes I’d chat with folks but mostly not. My job was in the office and on the phone. For a good week or two, though, every time I’d drive in, one of Mayor Coleman’s political assistants would be on the site.

He invariably sat in a lawn chair next to a fold-out table topped with a telephone, beside a small beige camper. I knew him only very casually, but I’d always stop to exchange pleasantries.

Once, while we talking, the phone rang. Without missing a beat, he answered, crisply declaring, “Mayor Coleman’s East Side Emergency Command Center.” I stared at the guy, stared at his lawn chair, trailer and phone, stared down the street and got back in my car.

Leadership in style and leadership in substance are two very different things. Mayor Coleman embraced one. Congressman Vento embraced the other. Bruce taught me that the real measure of leadership is taken when the TV cameras disappear.

Ten years later, I smelled a rat when Pawlenty’s staff pointedly released their post-bridge collapse internal e-mail traffic. “Look how concerned we were,” they wanted us to understand. “Look how quickly we swung into leadership mode.”

Perhaps the governor’s staff will post all e-mail communication to the public record. Probably not, but it would be interesting to review the “don’t fix the bridges, just continue inspecting them” exchanges.

Pawlenty’s leadership substance differs markedly from his style. His determined adherence to a “no new taxes” policy defines his substance; his rush toward catastrophe reflects his style. The first, as we are learning, belies the second.

A crisis truly is, in the fullness of time, the test of leadership.