“Expect to take heat if you’re changing the status quo”

G.T. Bynum is the 40th mayor of Tulsa, Oklahoma. In this Q&A, he shares lessons learned and advice for other innovators working on seemingly intractable problems.

You come from a long line of mayors — what did you learn as a child or young adult that made you want to take on the role yourself?

My grandfather, Robert LaFortune, has been my hero my whole life. He was the mayor when I was born, and retired when I was six months old. I was very close with him and my grandmother growing up, and every time we would go out to dinner or to a movie or to a show at the Tulsa Performing Arts Center, people would come up to talk with him and inevitably tell his little grandson why he was a good mayor. So even before I knew what a mayor did, I knew people valued the job a great deal. And I learned a lot about what people appreciate in an elected official. They never said, “He did a great job climbing the political ladder,” or “He was so good at sticking it to the other side.”  Instead they would say things like: “He listened to all sides before he made up his mind”; “He always put what was best for Tulsa ahead of what was best for him politically”; and “Even if I didn’t agree with his decision, I knew he was doing what he thought was right.” Those are powerful lessons for a kid. 

We know from our research into the innovation space that change is not possible without permission from the top to try new things and fail. What is it like to be that kind of leader?  

One of the most important keys for a leader when building innovation into the culture of your organization is that you need to show the people on your team why it can help them solve problems. When I started as mayor and we began talking about data and innovation, a lot of people on our team at the City took that as code for cost-cutting and job elimination. It took us about a year to be able to show people within our organization that it is actually an approach that can empower them. And for us, in a public sector enterprise, data and innovation are tools that allow us to pull issues out of the realm of partisan philosophizing and instead turn them into practical problems that people of very different partisan views can solve together. We need so much more of that in government right now. 

Can you share a story that shaped your leadership style?

As an aide in the United States Senate, I realized that the most effective legislators were those who would focus on a given issue that needed to be addressed—and then they would go and find a legislator from the other side of the aisle who agreed with them in general. They’d find out what they agreed on and what they disagreed on, they would leave out the areas they disagreed on (to fight another day), and then they would bring a consensus proposal forward. Lots of garbage bills get introduced in Congress that don’t do this, that are political theater for the political base back home. But for serious legislators who want to get things done, this is the approach you see over and over again. I staffed Senator Tom Coburn on a Hurricane Katrina recovery oversight bill we developed with then-Senator Barack Obama. Those two are about as far apart as you can get on the ideological spectrum, but we found that common ground and brought forward a bill that was cosponsored by Republican Leader Bill Frist and Democrat Leader Harry Reid. It was one of the most educational professional experiences I’ve had, and that respect for diverse opinions and search for consensus has impacted every important initiative I’ve led as an elected official.

How do you think about your role in the city — is there something that might be surprising to others or that sets you apart from others in elected office?

I think I approach my job as mayor a little differently because I don’t view it as a political office. You won’t see me railing against the Democrats or using my office to give jobs to Republicans. I treat it like you would expect the CEO of a large non-profit to treat their job: it is about service, not about politics.  We hire the smartest, hardest-working, most passionate people — and I don’t care what political party they are associated with.

What advice would you have for others either in a mayoral role, or working in city leadership, who are interested in shaking up the status quo and making a real difference?

 I’m only in a position to make an impact because I was willing to step up. That didn’t come without humiliation and sacrifice — those are fundamental expectations of the campaign experience. But what I found after I did step forward was that so many people had the same aspirations for our city, and they had my back. We’re taking on a lot of challenging work at the City of Tulsa (addressing historic issues of racial disparity, a search for mass graves from a race massacre 99 years ago, putting our economy on a competitive level with cities around the world, making our city the best it can be for new immigrants, etc.) and what I’ve found is that people appreciate it when someone is willing to stick their neck out knowing they will get flack for the work that needs to be done. So should you expect to take heat if you’re changing the status quo? Without a doubt. But in doing so you will find so many allies you never knew you had, and they will help you change the world.