Like many Americans exhausted by the recent elections, I often wondered as I listened to the rhetoric if we were doing it all wrong. What, I mused, might happen if a genuine creative thinker took over the leadership reins?
Then I recalled a story I’d read sometime ago about just such a leader.
Antanas Mockus had just resigned from the top job of Colombian National University. A mathematician and philosopher, Mockus looked around for another big challenge and found it: to be in charge of, as he describes it, “a 6.5 million person classroom.”
Mockus, who had no political experience, ran for mayor of Bogotá. With an educator’s inventiveness, Mockus turned Bogotá into a social experiment just as the city was choked with violence, lawless traffic, corruption, and gangs of street children who mugged and stole. It was a city perceived by some to be on the verge of chaos.
People were desperate for a change, for a moral leader of some sort. The eccentric Mockus, who communicates through symbols, humor, and metaphors, filled the role.
When many hated the disordered and disorderly city of Bogotá, he wore a Superman costume and acted as a superhero called Supercitizen. People laughed at Mockus’ antics, but the laughter began to break the ice and get people involved in fixing things.
The fact that he was seen as an unusual leader gave the new mayor the opportunity to try extraordinary things, such as hiring 420 mimes to control traffic in Bogotá’s chaotic and dangerous streets (a personal favorite of mine).
He launched a Night for Women and asked the city’s men to stay home in the evening and care for the children; 700,000 women went out on the first of three nights that Mockus dedicated to them.
Under Mockus’s leadership, Bogotá saw improvements such as: water usage dropped 40%, 7000 community security groups were formed and the homicide rate fell 70%, traffic fatalities dropped by over 50%, drinking water was provided to all homes (up from 79% in 1993), and sewerage was provided to 95% of homes (up from 71%). When he asked residents to pay a voluntary extra 10% in taxes, 63,000 people did so.
Another Mockus inspiration was to ask people to call his office if they found a kind and honest taxi driver; 150 people called and the mayor organized a meeting with all those good taxi drivers, who advised him about how to improve the behavior of mean taxi drivers. The good taxi drivers were named Knights of the Zebra, a club supported by the mayor’s office.
“Knowledge,’” said Mockus, “empowers people. If people know the rules, and are sensitized by art, humor, and creativity, they are much more likely to accept change.”
After two terms (not consecutive) as mayor of Bogotá, Mockus made an unsuccessful run for the presidency of Columbia. In 2010, he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, but when he shared the news, said he anticipated at least a dozen more years of active service.
He is currently the President of Corpovisionarios, an organization that consults to cities about addressing their problems through the same policy methodology that was so successful during his terms as Mayor of Bogotá.
Alan Cohen might have been thinking about Mockus when he said, “Outlandish ideas move the world ahead far more powerfully than logical steps. An outrageous imagination is ultimately the most practical contribution.”