November 14, 2009
Mayors chart leadership path
SUNY Cortland conference explores how leaders are developed
Joe McIntyre/staff photographer
Cortland Mayor Tom Gallagher, left, and former Syracuse Mayor Tom Young, right, field questions from the public and SUNY Cortland students Thursday during a leadership conference at SUNY Cortland’s Corey Union.
Local leadership will be crucial if Cortland and Central New York are to reverse decades of economic decline and resultant population loss, say two area leaders with notable political and business experience.
Outgoing Cortland Mayor Tom Gallagher and former Syracuse Mayor Tom Young led a panel discussion Thursday at “Fire it Up: Lead the Way to Change,” a first-ever leadership development conference at SUNY Cortland. Gallagher and Young offered their thoughts about making an impact in public service.
Speaking mainly to SUNY and Cortland High School students, with college faculty, staff and community members mixed in, Gallagher said it is never too early to start building leadership skills.
“The relationships you build at this point in your life are key to becoming a good leader,” Gallagher said. “A good leader doesn’t dislike anyone. Kill them with kindness.”
After eight years as a sales rep for Cortland Paper Co. and 18 more as co-owner of Crown City Distribution, the local Pepsi distributor, Gallagher retired in 1985. He then served as executive director of the county Chamber of Commerce through the end of 2001.
Elected mayor in 2003, he is nearing the end of his third two-year term and did not run for re-election.
Gallagher said at the conference that he never had any intention of becoming a mayor. But when he began to get involved in community affairs, he saw the same faces at every board and committee meeting he attended.
“There was a lack of people coming up through the ranks to fill leadership positions,” he said, adding that he got involved because he enjoys working with people and wanted to make Cortland a better place. But, like any other leader, he has had to prove himself.
“You wouldn’t believe some of the (nasty) phone calls we get,” Gallagher said. “And you may not feel like talking to people some days. But you have to take the time.”
Good leadership, Gallagher said, requires diplomacy and tact.
“If you make an unpopular decision in the right way, it will come back to benefit you in the end,” he said. The mayor even offered the audience some advice given to him by his father: “You need to be able to tell somebody to go to hell in such a way that he’ll enjoy the trip.”
Young was elected mayor of Syracuse in 1985 in the wake of predecessor Lee Alexander’s conviction on federal bribery charges. He served until 1993 when a term-limit law enacted during his tenure, and driven by Alexander’s excesses, prevented him from running for re-election.
Young’s tenure as mayor featured national recognition for excellence in housing, neighborhood renewal and urban revitalization. He has also been director of the State Fair, chairman of the New York Power Authority, and senior vice president of a Syracuse telecommunications company.
Calling the level of acrimony in national politics “deplorable” and “disgraceful,” Young said good leaders are able to find common ground.
“Reach out to men and women of good will in the public and private sectors and collaborate in a positive way,” Young said. Because of rampant and often vicious political partisanship across the country these days, Young said that to him, working locally is increasingly important. Strong leadership is vital to the area’s prospects for an economic resurgence and individual communities must pool their efforts, he said.
“There is a compelling urgency for regional leadership for the future of Central New York,” Young said. “If we are to reach our full potential and reverse years of decline, the only way to do it is regionally. The challenge for top leadership is to engage and harness our instincts and empower them to lift our state to a better tomorrow.”
Young’s key to leadership is in finding a middle ground around which to start discussion.
“Find common ground people can acknowledge,” he said. “Don’t be intimidating, be a convener. Unwind the predicament.”
Setting and sticking to an agenda is also important; having more items on your agenda than fingers on your hand will make it hard to keep the focus on your priorities, he said.
Exploring all the options is crucial in decision-making, Young said. “Is the decision being made to advance the right cause? Motivation, purpose and truth are so important.”
When asked by an audience member to describe the hardest decision he’s ever had to make, Gallagher did not hesitate.
“It’s right now — we’re trying to decide whether to get rid of our crossing guards,” he said, referring to one of the cost-cutting proposals facing city aldermen as they craft next year’s budget. “The mayor doesn’t get a vote — only in the event of a 4-4 tie. I hope it isn’t 4-4.”
The Common Council voted 7-1 Thursday night to eliminate the crossing guards in the 2010 budget.
Cortland resident Kim Huffman praised Gallagher for what she called “quiet leadership” — doing things that don’t always get recognition. Nine years ago, when she and her husband, David, were considering a move from Michigan to Central New York, they stopped into the Chamber of Commerce office on a whim.
“Mr. Gallagher talked to us for two hours, realistically and positively, about the town,” she said. “Because of this, we moved here.”
In the end, Gallagher said good leaders are recognized by their actions because they command respect rather than demanding it.
“You don’t make yourself a leader, your peers make you a leader,” Gallagher said. “People don’t care how much you know; they want to know how much you care.”
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