This article appears in the May 2011 issue of LouisvilleMagazine. To subscribe, please visit loumag.com.
Three days before being elected mayor of Louisville, Greg Fischer was riding around town in an antique red fire truck known as the Pool Party Express. It was (and remains) an odd and funny image in my mind, and when I caught up with the candidate and the Fischer for Mayor Express on the side of Bardstown Road, I more or less told him that I didn’t know what to make of it.
“Well, no, you don’t know me very well,” he retorted.
Several weeks later, I walked into Fischer’s plain Distillery Commons campaign office. Having won 51 percent of Louisville Metro’s votes, the mayor-elect was quick to avenge the fire-truck escapade and remind me that I’d given him a hard time for it.
“Remember that?” he asked.
The “that” was jovial but had a touch of pique in it. He was sparring and had caught me with my gloves down. “That’s true,” I said, smiling.
“I think it was a good ride,” he said.
“It worked out all right,” I admitted. Busted.
In my belated defense, Greg Fischer is not the kind of person one would expect to find campaigning from a vehicle perhaps better known as a prom party on wheels. He’s a man with few handles — habitually cordial; suits ranging from the dark to the gray; facial expressions that run a small, wry gamut punctuated by occasional smiles. And though he’s fond of mixing folksy dropped g’s with vowels lightly rounded and starched during a boyhood spent partly in Chicago and Connecticut, his voice tends toward a steady drone filled with businessisms. (Even his press secretary once told him he sounded “like a PowerPoint.”)
The mayor-elect told me about the day after the election (four hours of sleep, breakfast at McDonald’s on Broadway, at the office before his staff), his vacation (Miami to see his son and meet a former mayor, then off to the West Coast, working from his laptop throughout), and his priorities (engendering a community-service culture, communicating with Metro government employees and, of course, jobs, which had become almost a verbal tic of his during the campaign).
When I asked him what had surprised him most about being mayor-elect, he looked down at the table and thought about it for a moment. “Your presence as the mayor really uplifts people,” he said. “The symbolism of the officeholder . . . is really important to a lot of people in terms of being a partner in their efforts and validating the importance of what they do in the community.”
Fischer, I was learning, uses symbolism — visual statements — to build connections with people in ways his personality does not always do. The fire truck had been a symbol — a demonstration that he was out in the neighborhoods working for every last vote; that he may be dry, but he’s also droll; that he may be serious, but he doesn’t take himself too seriously. His inauguration breakfast also employed symbols — an almost surreal miniature Louisville built inside the Kentucky International Convention Center, complete with black carpet streets and a faux Metro Hall. Representatives of dozens of nonprofits, neighborhood groups and city agencies populated the event, signifying that they were all invited to the table in the Fischer administration.
Fischer also employed this technique in his career as a business executive. In their 2001 book Four Practical Revolutions in Management (to which Fischer made several material contributions), business management professors Shoji Shiba and David Walden wrote of the importance of symbolism and folklore in discussing how CEOs can “capture the imagination and convey passion.”
To illustrate their point, Shiba and Walden told a story about Fischer as the CEO of SerVend — the out-of-bankruptcy beverage and ice dispenser company that Fischer’s father bought and then gave to a 23-year-old Greg, Greg’s younger brother Mark and a business partner, Jerry Landers, who all turned it into a profitable company that they sold in 1997 for what the Courier-Journal reported was $73 million.
When Fischer the CEO learned that SerVend’s performance reviews were denting morale, he took dramatic action, gathering some employees together and setting the hated document ablaze. The symbolism of a performance review in flames was hard to miss.