On April 27th, Boston Foundation President and CEO Lee Pelton sat down with Mayor Michelle Wu for a conversation about leadership in Boston. It was a special virtual event of the Boston Foundation’s Annual Campaign for Civic Leadership, which supports our research, convenings and advocacy work—all with the goal of building a Boston that works for everyone. Mayor Wu was elected on November 2nd, 2021.
LEE PELTON: As a daughter of immigrants and the mother of two boys who attend the Boston Public Schools, as well as an MBTA commuter, you are working hard with so many others to deliver bold, endemic, structural change in Boston. How do you fulfill all of your various commitments?
MAYOR MICHELLE WU: Some of it is being very intentional about being okay with changing what leadership looks like and sounds like in our city. I think we are used to seeing a certain type of leader in main positions in Boston. I’m grateful that I have a print here on my wall from Mayor Kim Janey with a photo of Kamala Harris and Ruby Bridges, which says, “THE FIRST, BUT NOT THE LAST.” There is an expectation that the Mayor has to be at every ribbon cutting, every event—and it turns out there are an incredible 19,000 staff in the City of Boston, who are waiting to be empowered to step into roles. If one person is trying to do everything, then we are quite limited in what we can accomplish. So, getting that juggling right and finding out what’s possible for your family is also about building out the team and trusting and empowering that team.
LP: Were there lessons that you learned and have adopted from your time with Mayor Menino? Are there other leaders, here or elsewhere, whom you hold up and lift up as standard-bearers for the kind of leadership that you represent?
MW: For me, leadership and being your authentic self can’t be separated. The leaders I look to and hold up as my guiding stars also happen to be people whom I’ve had the chance to know and, therefore, see that their actions in public match their actions and behavior in private life. It’s very affirming to me that we have so many incredible examples of what that looks like.
Mayor Menino remains someone who I miss every day and I think about so often. Two other leaders who I look to often and continue to know and be mentored by are Senator Elizabeth Warren and Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley—incredible women who not only have been shattering ceilings, but also building the ladders and the infrastructure for more and more to follow and to expand what leadership looks like. They are unapologetic, bold, focused on getting things done and that’s something that I’m so excited to see every day.
LP: As you suggest, there is no substitute for authenticity in great leadership. But I think there’s also a characteristic that often isn’t talked too much about in leadership—and that’s vulnerability. I think some of the best leaders are those who are most vulnerable. And in that respect, it requires them to move about with a certain kind of humility and to ask a lot of questions and do a lot of listening. Would you agree with that? Would you describe yourself in that particular way?
MW: As a human being, as the daughter of immigrants, as someone who grew up very skeptical and in a family that was quite suspicious of government—and whether our systems were always taking care of or watching out for people like my family—it was a scary prospect to start on this path and jump into this field. I am naturally quite introverted and so, at the end of the day, I like to have my quiet time. I’ve always said that I want to feel proud of who I am, who I was during this time in politics long after I’m out of politics. And that means staying true to my touchstones of authenticity, humility and gratitude. There are lessons that we can’t possibly know or put into practice unless we’re walking alongside or, better yet, empowering those who are in the midst of solutions to be leading.
I hope that my job here—and the title that comes after my name these days—is a platform for the community and a mirror held up to the residents and leaders in every corner of Boston who should be at the center of all of the decisions that we’re making and, frankly, will get us where we need to go faster than any other way.
LP: Today’s Boston is a city that’s not only open to change, but there are those who are demanding real change. Is this an opportunity? How are you thinking about how you can bring voices that were often not part of the conver-sations into the process of change?
MW: The most important ingredient for change is trust of the community because fundamentally government and the public sector were created to do the big things that we can’t do by ourselves. We’re in a space now in our country, in our political history, where people aren’t sure what to trust. It gets very dangerous when you don’t quite believe that an action that the city or the state or the federal government is going to take is actually going to help you or help your family. Then we get to a place where things start to become very skewed in terms of what can get done, and then the process builds more distrust if we’re not delivering policies and initiatives that match people’s needs. That’s where we are right now. I truly believe that the way we get our country and our democracy back on track is to prove that it’s possible at the local level.
I think the key ingredient is bringing people into the process of creating policy, of setting accountability metrics for it and following through—and staying in constant communication. This job is about setting a vision, so people know where we’re going, but then being able to demonstrate and keep in constant partnership and communication to show that we’re making steps in the right direction. And setting expectations, so that we’re not saying things to elicit agreement or approval, but then not actually delivering on it.
That community trust is most important. It’s about who’s in leadership positions, how our processes run and how we demonstrate success and then continue to iterate and look back and evaluate and measure what’s been happening.
There’s a lot that spills over onto Boston from how divided our politics are nationally and I know that we have the capacity here. We have the relationships and the opportunities to set a different tone. But it will take intentionality. It will take all of us together.