Boston is one of my favorite cities. I get there at least once a year for work or to visit friends. For my daughter’s thirteenth birthday, we flew to Boston for a rare opportunity to see a Red Sox game and a Bruin’s game in the same day. The Fenway Park experience will be embedded in our hearts forever. There is something inexplicable about being in Boston. The beauty, the arts, the people, the universities, the passion, and the pride of community – that shone especially brightly through after the marathon bombing – all contribute to making Boston a magnificent place. But there is something else that has been a part of the splendor that has stood out in this city for more than the past two decades: Boston’s former beloved mayor.
Tom Menino, Boston’s longest-serving mayor, is a reminder of the special qualities that can make a politician cherished as a leader. Upon his death, back in 2014, Harvard’s paper, Crimson Staff, stated, “Boston lost its longest-serving chief executive, Harvard lost a partner, and the community lost a symbol of Boston’s cohesiveness, toughness, and spirit of renewal.”
There aren’t many politicians that are called ‘beloved,’ but that’s how most people in Boston would describe him after his more than five terms of office. Tom Menino was part of the fabric of Boston and the lessons about the importance of leadership that can be learned from the life of Tom Menino are worth noting. I have listed some of Menino’s attributes that describe his presence as a leader.
- Be connected. With his constant presence in the neighborhoods of Boston, more than half of Boston’s residents had personally met their mayor at one time or another. ‘Tommy’ Menino attended every possible event, ribbon cutting, and other public gatherings. People who met him said he was warm and genuine. He was authentic. Based on the hundreds of tributes after his death, Tommy’s down-to-earth, accessible manner and understanding of people made him highly regarded, both as a politician, a leader and as a person.
- Be a champion for the minority. Among Mr. Menino’s main priorities were “providing every child with a quality education; lowering the crime rate; and promoting a healthy lifestyle for all city residents.” Defender of the poor, those captive to their environments, and minorities, Menino stood strong as a principled leader of Boston, making it a great and beautiful ‘town’.
- Be humble. Months after leaving office, Menino was diagnosed with an advanced form of cancer. When he announced his illness, he made it clear that he did not want people to feel sorry for him, reminding the public that there are people worse off than him. He did not want to be treated any differently because of this illness. His attitude was the same as all previous challenges he had faced: “We’ll get through it.”
- Be principled. As a boy, Menino and his family experienced prejudice because of their Italian ethnicity. Thus, he was a staunch opponent to discrimination, and had zero tolerance for prejudice or racism of any kind. Menino stood up for justice by marching in the city’s gay pride parade and refused to march in South Boston’s St. Patrick’s Day parade because it banned LGBT advocacy groups. As a bridge builder in a city that had long been accused of inadequately handling race relations, Mayor Menino shattered the mold and stood for justice by connecting the gap.
- Be courageous. Leaders who get things done require toughness, discipline, and courage. In the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombings, Menino checked himself out of the hospital despite a broken leg to attend the memorial service and deliver his tribute to the victims and to the city. Menino knew that to be a leader you aren’t going to make everybody happy. Having the courage to stand for what he believed in was more important to him than popularity. The paradox was that by living and leading this way he was hugely popular.
Mayor Menino demonstrated an incredible human touch through the power of his authentic presence. Determination, work ethic, and an unyielding dedication to serving others were the hallmarks of this mayor. These qualities, along with his commitment to banish the racial polarization that had planted itself in Boston, solidified his legacy as one of America’s great public servants.
However, no leader or person should ever be emulated entirely. No one is perfect, and by observing carefully, you can learn as much from a person’s weaknesses as you can from their strengths. In order to serve the greater good, at times you have to exercise your power and be loyal to your followers. The Boston Globe noted once that, “Mayor Menino favored certain developers,” took a personal interest in almost every construction project, and often banished enemies “to the political wilderness.” He was even seen by some as a bully. Sometimes ridiculed for his lack of vision and eloquence, he was not known as the greatest of public speakers nor was he a leader with a profound ideology. But none of these criticisms overshadow Menino’s overwhelmingly assured legacy. To the contrary, these weaknesses helped make him who he was.
Reflecting on the life and lessons of the leaders in our lives – both the ones we are drawn to as well as those who repel us – can make us better people and better leaders. With all his strengths and weaknesses, Menino embodied what a politician can be. His lessons of hard work, dedication to those he served, and devotion to a purpose larger than himself should inspire us all as leaders to pursue our purpose with passion and a renewed sense of focus.