Political scandals in the United States involving sexual or personal misconduct have become so commonplace in recent years, it might seem difficult to distill insights into effective leadership from them. This week's guilty plea by former San Diego Mayor Bob Filner to false imprisonment and battery charges will undoubtedly lead to yet another chapter in the series of retrospectives in the U.S. press featuring former senator and vice presidential nominee John Edwards, ex-New York Governor Eliot Spitzer, former Congressman Anthony Weiner, and presidential candidate Herman Cain. Most of these politicians took to the podium to demonstrate contrition soon after their scandals broke. Yet while Filner conceded he had sometimes treated women poorly and intimidated female staffers, only this week did he admit guilt. Filner initially denied that this misdeed was grave enough to stand down and even asked the city to pay his legal bills. It took two months of mounting pressure to trigger his resignation.
Effective leadership hinges on integrity and accountability. The power of claiming responsibility and building a reputation grounded in integrity provides the central lesson of the most oft-cited leadership case study of recent years, an example taken from the corporate world. Robert Eckert, CEO of toy manufacturer Mattel from 2000 to 2011, pulled his company through a public relations crisis in 2008 by personally taking responsibility after news broke of lead paint and design flaws at the company's factory in China. The company recalled some 18 million toys from stores and Eckert personally fielded calls from the media. From academic journals to the Harvard Business Review, Eckert's claim of culpability and commitment to stewarding Mattel through the crisis has been noted as the key factor that pulled the company through its precarious situation, cementing his reputation as an effective leader. Filner, by contrast, minimized the gravity of his misdeeds by refusing to stand down, and turned his personal scandal into San Diego's.
Filner's actions and coverage of his personal behavior have diverted attention from what might prove to be the most visionary element of his political platform. As mayor-elect in November 2012, Filner announced a plan to make cross-border relations with Mexico a centerpiece of his city's economic and political strategy. "Dos ciudades, pero una region" (we are two cities, but we are one region) he declared before citizens at the Chamber of Commerce in San Diego. Three months into his tenure, the city of San Diego opened an office in Tijuana. In February, Filner and Tijuana Mayor Carlos Bustamente jointly announced that San Diego and Tijuana would together submit a bid to co-host the 2024 Olympic Games. While the Olympic committee ultimately deemed the San Diego-Tijuana partnership ineligible, San Diego's Tijuana office remains open today.
The growing alliance between San Diego and Tijuana points to an emerging trend in international relations: U.S. civic and business leaders increasingly stand at the vanguard of efforts to increase international ties. While many U.S. cities have opened trade offices in other places, none to date had attempted to formalize regional ties by opening an office representing the wider interests of the city as a whole in a foreign country. For Filner, as a city leader, this move was bold - especially given that advocates nationwide take examples from that region to make the case for immigration reform, drug trafficking, and stricter border security at the federal level.
U.S. leaders at local levels are now leading such efforts to develop the United States' global agenda. As they do this, they are helping the United States catch up to Europe, which has been the world's pioneer in regional integration since at least the 1950s. After the need for a union for border regions emerged from the International Regional Planning conference in Basel in 1965, ten European border regions formed in 1971 to promote integration. Europe remains the world leader in regionalism despite the euro crisis and challenges inherent in implementing recent policies such as the European Spatial Development Perspective adopted in 1999. The push for similar initiatives has been underway in the United States for some time. The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) provided a step forward in 1994, but regional bodies to rival Europe's are only emerging now. The Regional Plan Association published its Megaregions report in 2005, highlighting 10 key "megaregions" it foresaw driving the U.S. economy by 2050 - five of these extend into Canada or Mexico. Support for this model in the United States is steadily gaining momentum through regional conferences, trade delegations, and policy shifts instigated by politicians like Bob Filner.
As regional perspectives become more and more paradigmatic, local leaders are poised at the cutting edge of U.S. efforts to forge global connections. International leadership can flourish at the local level - but can only be seen to fruition if matched with integrity.