The Lord Mayor’s Disease

The Honourable Jeremy Bingham, Lord Mayor of Sydney, shown at his desk in the Town Hall, circa 1990.
The Honourable Jeremy Bingham, Lord Mayor of Sydney, shown at his desk in the Town Hall, circa 1990.

In 1989 my father was elected to the position of Lord Mayor of the City of Sydney by his fellow councillors (or aldermen, as they were still known in those days, with no regard for gender). Three years later, the same group decided not to elect him again, and so his all-too-brief but nonetheless glorious reign was over.

At this distance, his legacy is almost forgotten, but he coined a term during his time in office that deserves to be remembered. Jeremy Bingham identified and defined The Lord Mayor’s Disease.

The Lord Mayor’s Disease is a mental health condition that affects people in leadership positions — not just Lord Mayors, but also Presidents, Ministers, Chief Executives and Committee Chairs. People with The Lord Mayor’s Disease imagine that they are uniquely capable of fulfilling the leadership role that they happen to inhabit. They are sure that this is apparent to everyone except competitors for the position, who are perceived to be incompetent and motivated purely by personal ambition.

It seems obvious to a person with The Lord Mayor’s Disease that it is their civic duty to hang on to their role for as long as possible — no-one else could do it so well, no-one else can even begin to understand the subtleties of the role. Arguments that leadership positions are best renewed regularly, that fresh approaches are desirable, or that power should be shared, are anathema to a person with The Lord Mayor’s Disease. Instead, the afflicted person increasingly imagines that their individual instinct is the natural compass of decision-making, unerringly pointing to the true north of correct policy. Once The Lord Mayor’s Disease has taken a true hold, disagreeing with the sufferer will only provoke antagonism.

The Lord Mayor’s Disease could easily be called Prime Minister’s Disease, or Putin’s Pestilence, or Trump’s Scrofula, but I think the title Lord Mayor’s Disease rightly connotes the pompous pettiness of the disorder. Lord Mayors are somewhat ceremonial figures — their power is more apparent than real, ringed around with laws, higher powers, petty bureaucracies and budgetary considerations. Whatever Lord Mayors (ie, leaders) accomplish mostly represents the work and the genius of others, usually modified and half-murdered by committees, compromises and cuts. When someone has the conviction that only they could possibly do the job that they happen to hold, they have fallen into a petty error that merits a mockingly pompous title.

What Putin suffers from could also be called Napoleonic Fever, but it is really just The Lord Mayor’s Disease. The tragedy is that some people get to execute their pusillanimity on such a large scale.

In reality, of course, any leader (no matter how good) is replaceable, and will eventually be replaced. Sometimes the replacement will be better, sometimes worse: there is no correlation between the self-belief of the leader and their performance, or the performance of their successor. One has only to consider the succession of Australian Prime Ministers (among whom The Lord Mayor’s Disease is endemic) to realise that it is something of a lottery whether we get anyone half-way competent, and that never-ever does one Prime Minister voluntarily step aside to give someone else a go.

No leader is infallible, but The Lord Mayor’s Disease makes leaders less able to see their errors and accept responsibility. Preventing The Lord Mayor’s Disease requires cultivating self-awareness and insight, but the environment around leaders exacerbates the disease: they are surrounded by flatterers who seek advancement and who tune their discourse accordingly. Leaders are told that they are doing a great job even when they are not. The career path for the frank and fearless advisor is narrow.

It is no surprise that The Lord Mayor’s Disease is rarely prevented, usually afflicting all leaders to some degree. Length of time in office is strongly correlated with progression of the disease. Jeremy Bingham was in office for just under three years, but he developed a serious case within that time. He took something of a cold cure when he was turfed out by his own allies so that another egregiously ambitious gentleman could tilt for the job. That man was never Lord Mayor — an election under new boundaries engineered by the state Labor government changed the complexion of the City Council, and Frank Sartor donned the mayoral chain.

Mr Sartor’s term in office lasted nearly 12 years. He carried his case of The Lord Mayor’s Disease with him into a political career in state parliament.

His successor, Clover Moore, has been Lord Mayor of Sydney since 2004, an unrivalled 19 year term that still continues. To achieve this position, Ms Moore had to overcome the appalling sexism of council politics (she was first elected to South Sydney Council in 1980), then outmanoeuvre the machinations of both the Liberal and Labor parties to win the Lord Mayorship as an independent. She has been popular ever since, and has led a thoughtful and progressive administration. She has also burned through relationships with several allies and potential successors, and is now in the late stages of florid Lord Mayor’s Disease, incapable of imagining anyone else in the role, and deaf to any suggestions of making a handover.

The endearing thing about Jeremy Bingham is that he did identify The Lord Mayor’s Disease and diagnose himself as suffering from it. The cure was slow and painful, not just for Jeremy but for everybody around him, but he did eventually move on. He now lives a normal life, knowing that he has abilities, but also weaknesses, that he was once a Lord Mayor, but that nobody really gives a shit.

Some suggestions for controlling The Lord Mayor’s Disease
Painting of Alderman Jeremy James Bingham, Lord Mayor of Sydney, by Bryan Westwood
  • Statutory limits on time in office are a good thing. There are more talented leaders available than there are leadership positions, but the prospects for corruption, incompetence and distortions of process grow over time. Most leaders have a few good ideas and need a few years to implement them; after that, it is mostly repetition, self-congratulation and spoiling.
  • Leaders should plan to leave before they are asked to go, and they should (if they are concerned about their legacy) spend time cultivating the leadership abilities of potential successors. The Lord Mayor’s Disease usually works its most harmful effects on the most promising successors: these are the ones most often blocked by the incumbent.
  • Advisory positions should not always be in the gift of the leader. Independent public servants who can give frank and fearless advice are required. Something similar has to apply in the corporate sector.
  • Processes that guarantee the ‘Lord Mayor’ will get a regular kick in the pants from someone with nothing to gain or lose thereby are healthy. There can easily be too much dignity of office.
  • Leaders should be exposed to public scrutiny and criticism. Processes should be open, secrets should be minimised.

You might say most of these measures are in place already. Yes, and no. The political battle is never over.

© 2023 Craig Bingham

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2 comments

  1. Crikey! This is a good post and I know nothing about Sydney politics. (Do you think The Lord Mayor’s Disease is a close relative to The Emperor’s New Clothes Syndrome? )

    But how rare for the “diseased'” to diagnose, recognise, and name their own illness and dilemma. Almost seems like a new definition of health.

    (That said – term limits are not always the best idea. But there does come a time when not stepping aside – limits.)

    Like

    • Hi Josie, thanks for commenting! I agree that limiting time in office has its challenges, but I also really believe that leaders tend to hang around too long.
      I don’t really have a cure for The Lord Mayor’s Disease.
      Cheers,
      Craig

      Like

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