Skip to content

When mayors and CAOs clash

by George B. Cuff
in Governance, Leadership

I have often spoken of the ideal mix of personalities at the executive level of a municipality. It seems to me that having a strong mayor and council, together with and supported by a strong CAO and management team, is the ideal mix – or at least it should be. Municipalities are not well served by limp leadership. John Kennedy once remarked, “My experience in government is that when things are non-controversial and beautifully coordinated, there is not much going on.” I expect that that is so at times.

Effective Leadership Requires …

Leadership is a potent mix of vision, ambition, willpower, and ego. It is a powerful and at times raw force that, properly guided, can produce remarkable results. It is also a recipe for considerable damage if accorded to those whose own insecurities results in them seeking lapdogs for companions and servants.

Many communities and organizations suffer from an abundance of nice people who would avoid progress if it meant bringing about even a modest degree of disagreement. They place so much emphasis on the traits of compassion and gentleness that real leadership in dealing with difficult or emerging issues on the larger scale seldom happens.

Other communities suffer under the leadership of those who do not understand their potential for good, and those who are more interested in headlines than corporate accomplishments. They act in petty and mean-spirited ways, focusing their venom on anyone who they believe supported their predecessors (not realizing that, in so doing, they are consigning their new team to the same fate). The notion of an apolitical administration has never occurred to them, as they cast about for sycophants capable only of following orders, not offering professional advice.

While the public generally gets it right in terms of who they elect to public office, there are times when the results undercut the intent. Chief elected officials are generally possessed with strong opinions and the verbal skills to articulate clear positions. They see more broadly, think more clearly, and act more decisively than their colleagues. Regardless of whether or not they have ever held public office before, such people step up to the plate, and are keen to go about the business of forming a strong team of competent and trusted associates, on both the political and administrative levels.

Unleashed Egos

On the other hand, some communities have fallen prey to unleashed egos, who focus not on what is right with their new organization, but what might be less than expected. Such mayors quickly determine who is on their team and who is likely to be on the sidelines or ineffectual in their present roles. Rather than attempt any process of teambuilding, they act. Two walking egos is one too many, and rather than the new team taking the hit, the head of the internal team will fit nicely on the platter. The fact that there will be considerable expense incurred is not often considered, and the fact that the community’s prestige as an employer suffers is also considered a minor cost of doing business. The results are seldom pretty.

Necessary Attributes

But, what should happen? Is it not possible to elect a strong mayor and still have that individual feel comfortable with a strong CAO in the same room? Actually, it is. Many have found ways to make that work. However, it does require several attributes that are not common to all.

Maturity – While one would like to think that all members of council and all CAOs are of reasonable maturity, this is not always the case. Being self-confident is often more perceived than possessed. There is nothing about the process of election that assures anyone of maturity. It derives from a clear examination of one’s personality, weaknesses and strengths, and a sober judgment as to one’s real place in the world. Maturity is the combination of a realistic self-appraisal along with an appreciation of the gifts God gave others.

Consensus-building – A good team player recognizes the value of working towards a common goal through the support of others. This generally requires the ability to build allies through consensus, and through mutual support, recognizing that accepting the help of others and accessing their competencies results in far more success than one could ever achieve alone.

Respect – Big people appreciate the abilities of others. They recognize that gifts are often dispersed liberally, and that no one has an exclusive franchise. Mature people hold others in leadership positions with an equal degree of respect, and realize that those who serve in full-time leadership positions deserve their respect.

Ability to share success – Successful mayors find it within themselves to share success with others. They point to their council colleagues as being instrumental, and to the work of their CAO as the supportive mechanism that makes it all come together. When the municipality receives an award, the confident mayor finds great delight in pointing to the success of the CAO and administration. A community is blessed if it has a strong mayor leading the political team, and a strong CAO leading the administration. While clashes may be inevitable, they can also produce good results. The key as to whether or not that is so lies in the degree of maturity possessed by both parties. MW


George B. Cuff, CMC, our governance zone expert, has been involved in local government in one way or another since 1970. He has been a recreation and youth specialist, a department head, a mayor for 12 years and a consultant/advisor to municipalities since 1976. He is the author of Making a Difference: Cuff’s Guide for Municipal Leaders, Volumes 1 and 2, published by Municipal World, as well as dozens of magazine articles and columns in Municipal World since 1984.

as published in Municipal World, January 2008  


Looking for CAO or City Manager jobs? Visit https://www.municipalworld.com/jobs/

Also, check out these related resource materials:

Next Story
See All Feature Stories

The Great Unknown: Questions remain as AMO delegates grapple with issues around marijuana legalization