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The Electrifying Textbook

The fanfare was intoxicating. A glowing governor, flanked by adoring aides and enraptured legislators, signed the bill into law mere minutes after the State Senate approved it by a razor thin 33-29 margin. Two days later, after a regional and national media torrent rained down praise on the governor for his inspirational politicking, it was time for the parade.

The Governor triumphantly marched past an estimated two million fans waving signs reading “Thank You, Governor!” and “Promise Kept.” The throngs, “chanted his last name, sometimes at deafening volume,” as the, “parade’s rock star,” strolled down 5th avenue. Beaming, the governor described the experience as “electric” (Bolcer, 6/26/2011).

This hero’s celebration reads like the embellished culminating scene in a clichéd leadership film. Leader rises to prominence. Leader faces defining challenge. Leader overcomes obstacles. Leader celebrates and teaches lessons learned to an adoring public. It’s the stale, yet reliable, hero’s journey. The attraction here, though, in Governor Cuomo’s Gay Marriage Hero’s Journey, is how closely life imitates art.

Governor Cuomo’s real life leadership and mastery of the micro skills of agenda mobilization earned him the subsequent fanfare; and as we all know, rivaling Oscar Wilde’s “life imitates art” maxim is the reality that things are often “easier said than done.” This is the story of how Cuomo embraced the textbook fundamentals of leadership to advance a Marriage Equality bill and win a hero’s welcome from the public.

Cuomo’s first fundamental skill was establishing style. As Michael Barbaro explains in his excellent NY Times postmortem on the marriage equity campaign, “the lobbying had to be done the Cuomo way: with meticulous, top down coordination. ‘I will be personally involved,’ he said” (Barbaro, 6/25/2011). The Cuomo leadership style was at its core, a directive leadership approach seemingly lifted straight from The (Bass) Handbook of Leadership. Cuomo emulated this style where, “leaders decide and announce the decisions to their followers” (Bass, 2008, 460). As his predecessor Governor Paterson explained, “[Cuomo] ran the whole process through his office, and that was nothing short of brilliant” (Grossman, 6/27/2011). Cuomo understood that a directive style was critical in the highly strategic legislative environment and fully embraced this fundamental leadership approach.

Next, Cuomo clearly got a hold of a copy of Get Them on Your Side and closely dissected the chapter on agenda and coalition formation. Evidently a devout scholar or leadership materials, Cuomo understood his marriage campaign typified the developer agenda category. “As a combination of a planning and overhauling [approach]… [Developers] are committed to staying on top of things—empirically, rationally, and incrementally (Bacharach, 2005, 46). Cuomo was going to overhaul centuries of state tradition but he was going to do it through meticulous, political planning.

After agenda classification, Cuomo shifted to coalition formation. First, he knew to, “highlight all the people who share [his] agenda” (Bacharach, 2005, 67). He understood he had the active support of gay-rights advocates and could deploy these allies as needed.  However, he directed five fragmented activist groups to coalesce into one streamlined New Yorkers United for Marriage coalition.

Understanding that money is mobilization in politics, Cuomo then pursued passive support from the upper echelon up Republican donors. These donors were sympathetic to the libertarian, social freedom legislation and Cuomo tapped them for financial fuel to power his campaign. Even if they weren’t directly pounding the pavement for his agenda, they still offered critical, passive support.

With this machinery, the governor chased down wavering legislators, shifting them from reluctant to active supporters with his intimidating credibility. He easily flexed this credibility with a barrage of mail and personal lobbying while exploiting strategic alliances with heavyweight constituents in swing senators’ districts.

Finally and most surprising, Cuomo solicited the weak support of his primary opponent: The Catholic Church.  He appreciated that, “they [would] likely be some of [his] strongest skeptics, so [he would] need to develop strategies to keep them from derailing [his] efforts” (Bacharach, 2005, 68). So the governor, a practicing Catholic, contacted New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan and explained his case while inviting Church input into the bill construction. Effectively neutralizing his prime opponent, the Church found itself unwittingly co-opted into the coalition.

In the end, to complete his hero’s journey and slay the proverbial dragon, Cuomo veered slightly off textbook script. One vote shy of securing passage, Cuomo lobbied two fickle Republicans Senators for support. While both were sympathetic to the governor’s agenda, neither wanted to be pegged as the decisive “traitor” who pushed the bill over the top. So Cuomo, the shrewd Machiavellian, “informed both [senators] that another unnamed Republican would cast a yes vote” (Barbaro, 6/27/2011). This then delivered the final momentum the Governor needed and won him the weekend’s parade.

Ultimately, savvy leadership requires more than simple textbook analysis. The world is full of uncertainties and every leader benefits from a little supernatural luck on their hero’s journey. Nevertheless, Governor Cuomo on his road to legalizing gay marriage illustrated the power embedded in the micro skills of leadership. By establishing a vision, a leadership style, and a supportive coalition, he effectively executed his agenda. It may sound stale at times, but as Cuomo said, success can be an electrifying experience.



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