The Leadership Secrets of Bob The Builder

This blog is part of an occasional blog series on lessons learned from European "cities in transition." The guest author, Alan Mallach, non-resident senior fellow, Brookings Institution, participated in a recent trip to Europe along with Greater Ohio Executive Director Lavea Brachman. One thing that comes through loud and clear from both the Manchester and the Leipzig experience is that leadership matters. It’s pretty clear that without the leadership of Mayor Hinrich Lehmann-Grube in Leipzig after 1990, or the sustained leadership provided by operational/political partnership of Sir Howard Bernstein and Sir Richard Leese in Manchester since the 1980s, these cities would have achieved far less than what they have. I’d like to focus on Manchester, and on what Bob the Builder has to do with that city’s narrative.

There are a lot of interesting things about the Manchester leadership narrative, including the transformation of a band of fairly radical Socialists into entrepreneurs, the importance of continuity of leadership – Sirs Leese and Bernstein have been in their jobs since the mid 1990s, and stepped into their present day roles from key secondary leadership roles since the early or mid 1980s – or the (to me at least) inspiring rags-to-riches story of a 16 year old junior clerk (or tea-boy) working his way up to become the city’s Chief Executive.

I think it was one of the folks at the University who commented about Bernstein “he’s a regular Bob the Builder.” I didn’t think about it a lot. I’d vaguely heard of Bob the Builder as a popular UK children’s TV and video character, and yes, Bernstein and company have built a lot of stuff. But actually the Bob the Builder comment wasn’t really about buildings. The show is about Bob and his team, and yes, he’s a builder, but the show is really about how to have a relentlessly positive attitude. The theme song of the program is a kind of challenge-response number, which goes like this:

Bob: Can we fix it???

Kids: Yes we can!!!!

As Bob the Builder’s web site helpfully points out, “Bob and the Can-Do Crew demonstrate the power of positive-thinking, problem-solving, teamwork and follow-through.”

One of the more impressive aspects of the Manchester story is precisely this can do attitude. The Olympic bid could be seen as a preposterously quixotic effort, but it clearly facilitated a lot of planning and investment, and led directly to the city’s holding the Commonwealth Games in 2002, which has been pretty universally acclaimed as a success, and an important turning point. The city’s response to the IRA bombing in 1996 was another.  Within less than six months after the bombing, a firm was at work on developing a master plan and rebuilding scheme for the area, after having been selected through a highly competitive design competition. A year later, reconstruction was well under way.  Manchester’s experience offers a telling counterpoint to the years of largely pointless and often unseemly wrangling that took place after the 9/11 World Trade Center bombing.

While the attitude may be relentlessly can-do, it is grounded in realism. Bob the Builder doesn’t do fantasies; he gets the job done, and is devoted to teamwork (it helps that most of Bob’s ‘team’ are machines, rather than people). A British academic writer, by no means uncritical of Manchester or Bernstein, has written that “the role for Manchester City Council (MCC) that Bernstein has developed is simultaneously assertive about the capacity of local government’s ability to ‘make it happen’ and realistic about the way this capacity is strongly prescribed by MCC’s relation to other partners.”[1]

There are some legitimate issues with the Bob the Builder leadership style. It is not participatory.  In a conversation with folks from the University of Manchester, someone noted that Bernstein “knows what he wants and expects people to follow.” That issue is not unique to Bernstein or to Manchester. There is an inherent tension between leadership and participatory values, which needs to be acknowledged. Certainly, nobody ever accused Mayor Daley of being participatory. Leadership leads.

The other danger with that relentless can-do approach is that things come up that one can do, but one’s drive to make things happen and one’s ability to make them happen, can blind one to whether they are things one should do. Or that one tends to focus on the quickest path to the most visible end, and fail to consider alternatives that might take longer and be more complicated to put together, but yield results that create more long-term, sustainable outcomes in the end. Still, from what we saw, I’d give the city on balance pretty good marks.

Realistic, relentlessly can-do leadership is likely to be an important part of the transformation picture. And now, I’m going to turn on my TV to watch Bob the Builder.

[1] Adam Holden, “Bomb Sites: The Politics of Opportunity,” in Jamie Peck and Kevin Ward, eds. City of Revolution: Restructuring Manchester, Manchester University Press (2002).