Paradigm-Busting Lessons from Michael Bloomberg

Michael Bloomberg is blowing me away these days, again, with his taking the lead on climate change, both in terms of helping to harness the power of local government and for his willingness to contribute $15M to the United Nations’ Green Climate Fund to continue the work of reducing greenhouse emissions and reduce global warming.

I say “again” because Bloomberg’s actions these days remind me of his early, well, no, his entire three terms as mayor of New York City. His staunchly independent mindset and ability to effect change were reflected not only in his leadership and lifestyle choices (remember the bullpen and Gracie Mansion), but also in significant policies and accomplishments, including the no-smoking ban in restaurants, ban on trans fats, stance on gun control, the 311 number, resurgence of the New York waterfront, completion of the High Line, and more.

Of course, not everyone agreed with Mayor Mike, but the consensus is that he left the city in better condition than he found it in, and in many cases did so by questioning and challenging conventional wisdom.

And while I am tempted to take this in the obvious direction, that is to compare one rich man’s political career with another’s, I prefer to celebrate Michael Bloomberg for his courage and explore the value of paradigm busting.

Resist the need to maintain political, administrative and even physical structures out of “respect” for tradition.

The infamous bull pen is a great example of this. Mayors had traditionally occupied the most prestigious office at City Hall until Bloomberg took office, revamped the second floor chamber of the Board of Estimate, and installed about 50 cubicles there, including one for himself.

While many derided the decision for its “trading floor” design, there is much to be said for the spirit of transparency and teamwork resulting from such a set-up. A less independently-minded mayor would have been convinced to accept the status quo.

Service is its own reward, even in politics.

Bloomberg’s personal wealth did play a role in his mayoral years, relieving him of certain demands and entitlements, affording him the opportunity to finance his own campaign, accept a salary of $1 per year for each of his terms, and decline to reside in the stately Gracie Mansion as every mayor before him had. In fact, Bloomberg used his money to restore the Mansion and as a result improved the number of annual visits and its ability to fundraise thereafter.

 Stick to your . . . beliefs, despite standard party lines.

Bloomberg’s position on gun control, the right to choose, and same-sex marriage make it difficult to color him republican, and those beliefs may have cost him a successful presidential bid in the past. It’s much easier to see him for what he believes in and what he can accomplish than to label him democrat or republican, business man or politician.

While some of you may see this blog as a diversion from my usual discussions on the state of the state in education, it isn’t really that far off-topic. I see Bloomberg as a model for change within a historically prescriptive environment. His contributions to New York City were accomplished by breaking the rules in terms of how a mayor typically behaved. His direct defiance to the (admittedly grossly unpopular) president is only the most recent example of challenging a heretofore acceptable status quo (in this case that a sitting president represents the will of an entire nation).

Similarly, if we want to move the needle forward in education, we’ll need to be a little bit more like Mike, and start busting some more paradigms.

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