Rob Ford and the Crisis in Toronto: What does this circus say about leadership in crisis?

On November 18, Rob Ford, the mayor of Toronto, crashed a football game to party with fans, even though the league’s Commissioner requested he not attend. Ford has made Toronto famous all over the world by recently admitting he had indeed smoked crack, and been videotaped smoking it, but not because he’s an addict — he was in “a drunken stupor.” ( For a telling comic-strip style timeline of Ford’s comments, check out the CBC here…)

Note: Ford has now been stripped of his executive powers, and his staff and office budget have been reduced to a shell. According to Bloomberg Business Week, “Although he may be the most ridiculed politician in the world, there is no legal mechanism to remove him, short of a jail sentence. (No charges have been brought against Ford.) So Ford defiantly remains mayor and has promised to run for reelection next October. The longer his circus goes on, the more Ford seems to revel in his role as its clown prince.”
A man determined to have fun, no matter what it costs his city!

A man determined to have fun, no matter what it costs his city!

What can this be but frat party leadership, perhaps the most amusing and embarrassing party platform for the mayor, international communities, and comedians. According to the Globe and Mail, American late night comedy can’t get enough of the story, with Jimmy Kimmel doing a mash-up of Ford’s confessional press conference and ending with the zinger, “Kimmel’s zinger: “It’s like Toronto has a 400-pound Andy Dick running the city.”

It’s not only Americans, though, and the jokes aren’t only about Canada. On the Conan show, Will Arnett got in a few zingers about America’s crack-smoking mayors (most notably in DC), and said, wonderfully, “The only stupor I want my mayors to be in is a stupor of legislation.” I loved that! Way to get to the real point.

I suppose it’s exciting to Americans when Canadians, who generally have more dignity and certainly have better healthcare and benefit packages, have leaders as hapless as some of ours. So the jokes will continue, but I also hope some of us can begin a conversation about government officials and the strange ways celebrity, good or bad, has started to become a marker that makes leaders worth watching. Initially, Ford’s approval rating held steady, even after he admitted his self-destructive behavior. Some agencies even reported a tick upward. Statistics can be tricky, and viral news can exaggerate the results, but still…. It just seems wrong.
Steve Russell/Toronto Star

Steve Russell/Toronto Star (Chalk Graffiti Outside the Hearing about Ford’s drug abuse in Toronto)

And in fact, despite the apparent excitement generated by his celebrity, it is wrong. As of last Wednesday, 72% of Toronto citizens believe Ford’s behavior is “not acceptable, according to CTV News last week. And 76% want him to resign permanently or take a temporary leave. Nonetheless, 65% don’t want the province to intervene and demand his resignation. So it’s complex — it seems they want him to take responsibility. Very co-dependent of them, since Ford has repeatedly insisted he will not step down, and he does not have a problem.

Chris Young/AP Renata Ford looking like she’d rather be somewhere else Thursday after her husband, Toronto Mayor Rob Ford, apologizes for “graphic” remarks he made about female oral sex earlier in the day. The beseiged politician said he went “over the line” after accusations of cocaine abuse and procuring prostitutes became public Read more: http://www.nydailynews.com/news/politics/rob-ford-threatens-legal-action-aides-claim-drug-sexual-advances-article-1.1516827#ixzz2l0Ux9UFL

Chris Young/AP
The beseiged politician said he went “over the line” after accusations of cocaine abuse and procuring prostitutes became public. To his right, his wife, Renata Ford. 

That means his problem, and his strange insistence on being brutishly, crudely frat boy authentic and then apologizing as if he’s never going to do it again, is now the problem of Toronto citizens. Because a leader who refuses to lead with integrity (or cannot) passes the baton to his followers. Last Friday (two days after the poll at CTV), Ford apologized for crude comments about oral sex while denying that he harassed a city staffer. A few days later, he was photographed waving what looks like a giant beer bottle in the air at a game he was asked not to attend.

I suppose he is a leader whose personal crisis is creating a leadership crisis in his city, a leader whose erratic addictive behaviors are escalating, and obscuring his better intentions on taking office. Because, despite the spectacularly binge-driven showmanship, he apparently has done some good. According to Philip Preville in Toronto Life, “While the entire city has been distracted by the giant blowhard on the screen, the man behind the curtain has accomplished some impressive wizardry. On the labour file, Ford pulled off a previously inconceivable trifecta: he got the city’s largest union locals to sign collective agreements on his terms and outsourced waste collection west of Yonge—all while avoiding any work stoppages.”

He also apparently did some good on budget problems, although Preville admits, “Ford’s lapses as mayor have been as substantial as his successes,” and he’s not talking about drunken stupors, crack cocaine and harassment. (read the whole article here).

There are three leadership issues here, major questions worth exploring:
1. Ford represents an extreme example of leaders out of control, and whether we diagnose the problem as the Bathsheba Syndrome, or a failure of personal discipline and integrity, there’s a lesson to be learned by looking at the big picture.
2. American media coverage is sensationalizing the excess (not hard to do, because there’s so much of it!) while downplaying the consequences to Toronto’s people. How do we get through the titillation and voyeurism, and look at the problem — whatever we define that to be?
3. This crisis and the response from Toronto citizens, shows something interesting about followership and public opinion. Why did  Canadians even give Ford the choice to step down when there was an obvious trail of excess and carelessness? What leadership and followership expectations are revealed in that negotiation, and what can we learn from them?

I’ll follow up in further posts, but for today, I just wanted to raise the questions. Through the chaotic smokescreen of this strange drug-addled story, there are hints of something far more interesting, and perhaps, more disturbing.

5 comments

  1. We in DC had to endure our “Mayor-for-Life” Marion Barry’s public self destruction yet durable popularity; he is still on the city council. In sum total he has done more good than harm, but it’s astonishing to watch a public figure blatantly transgress and seem to pay no consequence.

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    1. Oof, yes! The consequences “ordinary” people face when we fall so hard, politicians seem to weather with more aplomb! I wonder if it’s a quality of teflon resilience, or just plain persistence!?

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  2. […] Yesterday’s post offers lots of links, background about the crisis and a general analysis of h…, which has forced citizens to call for his resignation. Today I’m going to write about Ford as an object lesson for those of us who believe authenticity – defined as an integrated public/private integrity –  is a leader’s best tool. Instead of the performance we hunger for – scandal and abject apology-  Ford insists on showing us his true self, and although it’s honest, it’s not pretty. By refusing to follow the post-scandal script, and clinging to the “man of the people” myth he used to get elected, Ford is living proof that authenticity for politicians today is a performance that reassures — not a reflection of subjective or objective reality. […]

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  3. […] that Ford may simply be incompetent, not addicted. (She doesn’t talk about food addiction, but his brother does say his biggest problem is his weight — perhaps that is a clue to his dependent personality?) At any rate, his public behavior does […]

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  4. […] here’s an update on the news, for those who can’t resist learning more: The Rob Ford trainwreck is still burning bright in the international media. Today we’re getting comments from the men […]

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