Contrarian: Corrupt and Connected

If we want better leadership, says our Contrarian, we need to find people who aren't so plugged in.

For the past six months or so, a little nonprofit called Leadership Philadelphia has been running a project to identify the area’s top civic “connectors.” With the help of a sophisticated network-mapping database, the group will attempt to log the connections of thousands of “leaders next door” — can-do folks that lots of other people from different walks of life personally trust and admire. The goal is to sift out the top 100 connectors, plumb the depths of their wisdom by interviewing them, and then roll their secrets into a leadership curriculum for the public schools.

The Connector Project has won generally glowing reviews from the city’s print media. At the Inquirer, Chris Satullo has hailed it as a balm for the city’s corruption scandals. Sandra Shea at the Daily News calls connectors the “unsung heroes of positive change: Without them, nothing would happen.”

I think these two ought to start reading their own newspapers a little more closely. Unless you’re working for the U.S Attorney’s office, compiling a list of savvy operators who know everyone and have a lock on getting things done is a very dumb idea. In Philadelphia, more than most places, connectors are the disease, not the cure. Take a hard look at the moral decay in the core of our civic life and you’ll find a rat’s nest of connectors — smart, popular people whose corrosive niche in life is finding their fun in dysfunction.

Take Manny Stamatakis, the insurance middleman and big-time political campaign contributor who could credibly hold himself out as a paragon of civic virtue until the day his bugged conversation with City Hall scandal target Ron White hit the Inquirer. Stamatakis and White — both of whom might have earned top Connector Project trustworthiness ratings from the many people in their debt — were plotting to get a lucrative racetrack permit on the old Navy Yard site. Stamatakis marveled at all the favors he could call in. “If we don’t get this … deal done, we should be ashamed of ourselves,” he was quoted telling White on a tape obtained by the Inquirer. “I mean, Jesus, everybody in our deal has done so much for so many people.” There’s the can-do spirit of a true connector in action. To paraphrase the Buddha: “What is the sound of one hand washing the other?”

I’m sure the Connector Project isn’t looking to develop a list of Manny Stamatakis types, at least not now that the feds have reportedly subpoenaed records surrounding cheesy-looking deals that involve his many connections. Liz Dow, Leadership Philadelphia’s president, has volunteered more positive connector role models, such as former city managing director Phil Goldsmith and Jane Golden, founder of the mural arts program. Both are good people, and they’ve done good things, but to hold them out as exemplary models of leadership is to admit how thin the local leadership bench really is. Goldsmith has been a highly effective functionary, and probably claims little more for himself. As for Jane Golden, who doesn’t love murals? How much courage and determination does it take to put paint on blank walls?

It seems hopelessly naïve to think that a computer-generated list of “connectors” will turn up community leaders with integrity and a concern for the common good, as Leadership Philadelphia claims. The computer is just as likely to stumble across connectors who became connectors precisely because they lack these very qualities. I’m sure, for instance, there are many fine and decent restaurant owners who deal straight with their employees and pay their taxes, but would never make anyone’s list of important connectors. Then there’s Neil Stein, who labored for years to know and be known by everyone. Insulated by his connector status and rosy media image, Stein stiffed his waitstaff on payroll withholding, cheated on his taxes, and wangled two loans from the city for about $800,000 while his house began to fall. Only when the IRS finally caught up with him did Stein’s connections fail him. Now he’s making connections in federal prison, and the city is left holding the bag.

There is no question that the region has serious leadership problems. I have one exasperated friend in local politics who calls our town “a city of pussies.” That’s mainly because the connector ethos is already way too strong in Philadelphia’s leadership culture. Our ­connector-leaders don’t really lead. They waffle. They triangulate. They split the difference. They’re just as likely to obstruct as achieve, since taking a firm, principled stand on anything risks queering the next juicy deal with one’s fellow connectors. Making a difference always takes a backseat to maintaining one’s valuable connections.

If we truly wanted to go on a hunt for admirable leadership, we would forget about the connectors and dig around instead for the unplugged. These are the people who lead by example, by talent, by willpower and persuasion. An unplugged leader is one who is eager to blaze a new trail despite a lack of connections. Wachovia Bank’s Hugh Long came here from Atlanta in 2003, and he’s already taken charge of the city’s 2016 Olympic bid. Whether you love or hate the idea of a local Olympics, you have to admit that Long has an unusual leadership style for Philadelphia. In a town laden with history, Long complains he’s sick of getting history lessons about how things really work in these parts. If leadership is billiards, consider Long a straight-shooter in a town of trick bank-shot artists. Will he succeed? Who knows? But the balls are going to fly. And that’s putting it nicely.

I’d be much more impressed with Liz Dow and Leadership Philadelphia if she tried finding more people like Hugh Long and built a school curriculum around them. There’s something cancerous about Leadership’s current goal, to drum into young minds that “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.” Children should be trained to develop their talents and skills first, and worry about playing the angles later. Their primary role models should be people who work hard, do the right thing, and exercise the courage of their convictions. The trouble is, you can’t find people like that with the help of some fancy computer program. They’re just not connected enough.