A Quiet Crisis: Looking for Leaders in Cleveland

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It's amazing the way two people can be living in the same city, in practically the same space, and have completely different perspectives on local leadership. On Huron Avenue in downtown Cleveland, Lisa Rubin works in a retail eyeglass shop her father founded 55 years ago.

Rubin knows the economy's struggling, but considering everything, she says business has been good. She's selling lots of funky, modern styles to the people who moved downtown in the 1990s, when a cluster of maverick real estate entrepreneurs pointed the way.

Lisa Rubin: Oh Yeah. I remember in the '70s when people used to say "You work downtown! You work on Prospect! I would never go down there!" And for years people wouldn't come downtown… But it's been an up-and-down situation with the whole area.

Lisa sometimes wishes the region's leaders would think a little less about sports and more about cultural life. But overall, she thinks the people who make things happen have done a reasonable job, and really care about what happens to residents.

A few blocks away, Lisa's husband Michael might as well be living on another planet. His Prospect Music shop is wedged in between the wig shops and jewelry stores on a tiny strip of East 4th Street. While a customer shows off his circular breathing skills on a homemade didgeridoo, Michael Rubin's got other things on his mind. For the second time in six years, he has to move. The landlord is making way for a new club on the premises.

Michael Rubin: They've pretty much made it clear they don't want our type of businesses down here. I think they've opted for entertainment again.

As a professional musician, Rubin's got nothing against bars and clubs. What's bothering him is the way Cleveland' corporate leaders and politicians approach problems of development. He points to a neighbor, the Gateway project-a sports and entertainment complex which he says is still causing traffic and tax problems.

Michael Rubin: When Gateway had just been approved and all the pundits were saying how this would spur development in the area, I felt right from the beginning that there were going to be a lot of people thinking they would come in and make a fortune in a short period of time. Most of those people are gone.

Rubin thinks part of the problem is the slow economy. He suspects some banks simply made bad loans to businesses with no long term plan. But what stings, he says, is the thought that some powerful people are haphazardly creating and tearing down, with little regard for public good.

The jury's still out on Gateway, but most people agree Northeast Ohio is suffering a shortage of capable leaders, leaders both the Rubins can trust. There are subtle shifts in Cleveland politics that hint at changes in the futures. Most immediately, there's a dispute going on within the Cuyahoga County Democratic Party over an open seat on the County Board of Commissioners. Party chair Jimmy Dimora says state lawmaker Peter Lawson Jones should fill the vacancy. But County Recorder Patrick O'Malley also wants the job. O'Malley is asking a judge to intervene in the voting procedure. While the dispute may be forcing party members to make tough decisions about who to side with, insiders believe Dimora's control over the party is not in real trouble. Dimora himself points out that the vast majority of local elected offices are under Democratic control, as they have been for many years.

Jimmy Dimora: We've been very fortunate in Cuyahoga County. People have been very kind to Democrats running for office. Democrats who run for office in this county usually stand up for working families, and working family issues. And I think that's important to the electorate in this county.

But the electorate is also going through some changes. Data from the 2000 census show more people moving away from city centers, outward to the suburbs, traditionally more friendly ground for Republicans. Over the same period, the GOP has accounted for a greater percentage of voters going to the polls. Back in 1988, when George Bush Sr. was elected, the number of republicans casting ballots in Cuyahoga County was just over 61,000. By the time his son ran in the 2000, the number of Republicans voting nearly doubled.

At the same time, a generation of men who've influenced local elections is not getting any younger. Sam Miller, Charles Ratner, George Forbes, and Dick Jacobs are all well past sixty. Each is alive and very much a part of the community, judging from campaign finance reports filed during last fall's mayoral election. Even so, many have begun to speculate about who will step in to replace these men as major influences in government and business.

Management expert Richard Boyatzis says warns there may not be a stable of carefully groomed successors waiting in the wings to take over. He's head of the department of organizational behavior at Case Western Reserve University's Weatherhead School of Management. And what if such people have been designated?

Richard Boyatzis: The fact is that the majority of [people in] leadership positions AREN'T effective leaders. A colleague of mine, John Kotter at the Harvard Business School, in his 1980 book on leadership did a survey of the CEO's of Fortune 500 companies, and basically found that 53% of them were seen as not having the capabilities or skills to do their jobs well… In my own studies of managers at all different levels I've found about fifty percent don't' contribute at all. I mean, they don't add value.

Boyatzis and others have also noted a distinct change in what is meant by the phrase "community leader". In Cleveland's heyday, corporate vice presidents were often expected to join the political party of their choice, and cultivate ranking positions with civic groups. These days, Cuyahoga County Republican Party chairman Jim Trakas says companies are lucky to have CEO's living in state, much less in town.

Jim Trakas: We're really at another crossroads in corporate culture here in Greater Cleveland. The last few decades, there's been more globalization, and corporations focus less on civic affairs. We're in a survival mode - many leaders who've been at it for many years, are not going to be replaced immediately by successors who are going to be able to do the same thing.

Not good news for Cleveland, says Trakas. However, he hints that this is also an extremely important time to be young, gifted, and living in Northeast Ohio.

Jim Trakas: I think corporate leadership in Cleveland will become smaller companies, whose names are not known to the people of Cleveland right now, or who may not even see themselves at corporate leaders.

Some may not find much comfort in the knowledge that the city's best and brightest will need another ten years of incubation. But many see the current situation as part of a cycle.

Jeff Christian is the head of one of the country's top executive search firms, located here in Cleveland. He's found CEOs for some of the country's biggest high-tech names: IBM, Hewlett Packard, and Apple. Christian says it may sound corny, but it's important to remember that everyone needs challenge-especially budding leaders.

Jeff Christian: If someone takes the time to nurture them, to coach them, to listen to them about where they want to go in their career, those are the things that are incredibly important and also breed loyalty. I think the region has to adopt a philosophy among its CEOs that talent is everything.

Not always an easy thing to do, Christian says, in a manufacturing economy that's traditionally been driven by process, widget, and patent. A number of professional and non-profit groups have started thinking about how they can bring the next generation along. The Cleveland Foundation, a funder of leadership programs in the past, is looking for new ways to use its resources to help leaders develop.

But even as existing political and corporate leadership programs go to work, the question remains whether the old models are good enough. Driving around downtown, past the empty windows where Dillards' department store once stood, taxi driver Rose Muscatello shows us the spot where she parks her yellow cab each night in front of the Marriott, waiting ever-longer between fares.

Rose Muscatello: Cleveland's in a recession. And has been in a recession for at least a year. And nobody's been saying that.

Two years ago, Rose was bringing home about $38,000 per year driving this cab.

Rose Muscatello: I'm probably making a third less than I was making before.

For many in the region, a leader is someone who's got a big idea about kick starting Cleveland's entry into a new economy. For Rose, a leader is just someone who can bring the customers back downtown. In Cleveland, April Baer, 90.3 WCPN® News.

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