Leadership Lessons from Latoya


In the past couple of years, I have reinforced some of my thinking and beliefs about leadership by watching bad leaders in action.  Can one learn from poor examples as effectively as from good examples?  In other words, is learning what not to do as helpful as learning what to do?  I believe it is.

There are many examples of leaders who are out of touch and arrogant in their behavior.  This seems to be a trend that isn’t limited to business, it also affects civic leaders.  I’ve seen many examples of this lately.  My go-to person for bad leadership happens to be the current mayor of New Orleans, Latoya Cantrell.

Latoya Cantrell became mayor of New Orleans on May 7, 2018.  She is the first woman to hold this office in the 300-year history of New Orleans.  She became mayor after serving as a member of the New Orleans City Council from 2012-2018.  This length of service would normally be commendable.  If you do an internet search on Latoya Cantrell, you will find more articles concerning scandals than positive accomplishments.

Now that she’s in her second term as mayor, there have been numerous scandals and examples of bad leadership.  Even setting aside the politics of the scandals, the results speak clearly on their own.  Some of the outcomes from the Cantrell administration include:

  • Crime has increased.  When you look at the period Latoya Cantrell has been involved in New Orleans city politics directly (from her time on the City Council through her time as mayor), crime has been on a steady rise (see https://www.city-data.com/crime/crime-New-Orleans-Louisiana.html for data up through 2020).  New Orleans became America’s murder capital in September 2022 when it recorded 52 homicides per 100,000 residents.
  • Infrastructure issues are not being addressed.  If you do an internet search on ‘New Orleans Potholes’, you’ll find many stories documenting the deplorable state of the streets in New Orleans.  One story (check it out at https://www.fox8live.com/2022/03/10/pothole-repairs-take-over-200-days-complete-new-orleans-average-officials-report/ for the story) reports that it takes the city over six months to address potholes.  There’s even a page on the city’s website about potholes (https://nola.gov/next/public-works/topics/potholes/).  It’s ironic that the statistics for filling potholes stopped in 2016!
  • Scandals and corruption involve the mayor frequently.  Since she’s been elected, there have been numerous scandals involving Cantrell.  They include:
    • Charging almost $30,000 in unlawful upgrades (flights and hotels)
    • Paying her “image consultant” $231,000 out of city funds
    • Living in a luxury apartment owned by the city without paying rent
    • Spending an inordinate amount of time with a member of her security detail (an affair was alleged in the divorce filing by the spouse of the security officer)

Because of these results, Cantrell faced a recall earlier this year.  The recall vote was unsuccessful, so Cantrell will serve out the rest of her term.

So, what can leaders learn from this example?  I have done a bit of reflecting on Cantrell’s leadership, and have come up with a few lessons:

  1. Results speak for themselves.  It doesn’t matter what the leader says if their efforts don’t yield positive results.  Latoya Cantrell does defend the city, but with the data strongly against her, she comes across as disconnected from reality.  A leader needs to speak the truth and take responsibility for their results.
  2. Don’t let your position go to your head.  Being a leader can bring temptations.  These temptations, when acted upon generate a sense of entitlement.  Latoya Cantrell justified her upgrades, “image consultant”, and luxury rent-free apartment based on her position.  In my opinion a humble leader is more effective and gathers willing followers.
  3. Leaders serve their constituents, not the other way around.  This is a follow-on to letting your position go to your head.  A leader’s team will make or break the leader.  A servant leader gets good results because of their team.
  4. As a leader, recognize you will be watched (even when you don’t expect it).  Public leaders have much less privacy than the average citizen.  All leaders must be aware that they will be watched with more scrutiny than the average person.
  5. Don’t take offense or retribution for criticism.  Leaders will always be magnets for criticism.  As a leader, I tried to embrace criticism to evaluate my actions.  I acknowledge that the struggle is real.  I want to defend my actions.  In retrospect, there is usually a nugget of truth, a learning moment, or a validation to my strategy in all criticism.  A leader who responds in an even-handed manner will show not only poise but will show that they will listen to feedback.
  6. There is a right way (and a wrong way) to behave in public.  During this past Mardi Gras, Latoya was photographed obscenely gesturing to a float rider.  This picture went viral and reflected very poorly on her.  A good leader wouldn’t respond in that manner or would take full responsibility for an inappropriate response.

As I researched Latoya Cantrell for this post, I found that I could quickly point out lessons I could apply to my leadership.  These lessons didn’t change my opinion of her leadership.  Instead, they reinforced my personal leadership style and beliefs.

How about you – do you think you can learn from other peoples’ mistakes or wrong (at least in your view) approaches?  Do you learn from poor examples as well as good examples?

Do you surround yourself with people who are willing to tell you hard truth about your own behavior?  I’ve also found that while hard truth sometimes hurts, I’m a better person for listening and accepting it in a non-defensive manner.

I’d be interested in your thoughts.  Do you learn more from positive examples or negative examples?  Do you have someone who will “tell it to you straight” when you make mistakes?