The question was simple enough: Should Mayor Ray Nagin and other local officials borrow a page from Saints Coach Sean Payton's book when it comes to leadership? It was a throwaway question, really. A softball.
The obvious answer is yes, Nagin and others have a lot to learn from Payton. He took a losing franchise and made it not just a winner but also a national darling in just one season. And in the process, he and the team have lifted the sagging spirits of a city starved for hope.
But the honest answer to the question is that leadership is not something you can borrow. It's not a commodity, like a cup of sugar. It's an intrinsic quality, and you either have it or you don't. It can be developed in someone who has it already, so that what's there to begin with comes to the fore, but it cannot be passed around like a recipe.
That's not to say there are no lessons to be gleaned from what the Saints -- and Payton -- have done in the past year. There are many, and they are worth studying.
What Payton did is a great story, but the lessons lie in how he did it. First, he got rid of the problem players, some of whom have talent to spare. Payton recognized early on that the Saints needed to become a team in the truest sense of the word; players had to be willing to put the team's fortunes ahead of their own. He thus sought players with heart, not attitude. This led him to get rid of nearly half the previous year's roster.
The ability to make tough, even potentially unpopular decisions is one of the hallmarks of a great leader. Sean Payton has that ability. Ray Nagin does not. If anything, our mayor runs and hides from tough decisions, as do most politicians.
Another hallmark of Payton's leadership style is that he inspires his players. He got them to believe in his vision, but I suspect it started with getting them to believe in themselves. This requires more than just giving good locker room speeches. Real leaders lead by example.
The best example of that is Payton's absolute refusal to settle for mediocrity or to accept excuses for failure. We've all seen him rip into players as they leave the field after a botched play. This coach set high standards, and he demanded that they be met.
Has Ray Nagin set a good example for New Orleanians? Does he inspire us? Does he make us believe in our city? Has he set high performance standards for his "team"?
If anything, Sean Payton and Ray Nagin are a study in contrasts -- in terms of both performance and style. Nagin promised big changes but delivered meagerly. To get re-elected, he divided us rather than inspiring us. In fact, it's probably easier for the average New Orleanian to see the NFL Coach of the Year than it is to get a few seconds of Nagin's time. Payton is a genuine star, yet he's more approachable than our mayor, who thinks he's a rock star.
In the end, the answer to the question is no, Ray Nagin cannot borrow a page from Sean Payton's book. He wouldn't know how to read it.
The rest of us, however, the citizens of New Orleans, should take a lesson from Payton. We are the ones who must lead New Orleans now.
We should not be afraid to make tough decisions -- like getting rid of "problem players." Above all, we should stop settling for mediocrity and not accept any more excuses for failure.
The Saints and Payton have given us reasons to smile -- and hope. Dare we take it to the next level?