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What Mayor Bloomberg’s reported invitation to Hillary Clinton says about Bloomberg

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In the latest chapter of the speculation fest that is surrounding Hillary Clinton’s pending retirement, Michael Barbaro of the New York Times is reporting that the Secretary of State was approached by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg about running for his job.

According to the Times, three sources confirmed that Bloomberg approached Clinton in a phone call “some months ago” about entering the 2013 New York mayor’s race. As one might expect, the woman who has become a global icon in her own right reportedly said that, no, she was not interested in the job, thank you very much. Spokespersons for both Bloomberg and Clinton would not comment to the Times, citing private conversations.

The report may add to the persistent and near-daily intrigue about what Clinton will do next (New Yorker editor David Remnick added to it Sunday with his own take on why Clinton will run for president). Yet if true, the report is a lot more interesting for what it says about Bloomberg than about Clinton. As mayor, of course, Bloomberg does not hold the power to select his successor; the voters do. And yet Bloomberg’s interest in who follows him says much about how he sees his job and what he may be wrestling with as he prepares to exit it.

Privately Bloomberg has, as the Times reports, “signaled support for the presumptive candidacy of Christine C. Quinn, the City Council speaker, who cleared a path for his third term by backing a change to the city’s term-limit law.” He is expected to eventually endorse her. Nevertheless, Quinn is not a business leader, nor has she governed an institution the size of the State Department and held the attention Sec. Clinton does.

If Bloomberg really did make a serious approach to Clinton, it could say a lot about what he sees as the stature of the mayor’s job in New York. As one Democratic National Committee member and fundraiser told the Times, “if in fact he did say that to Hillary Clinton, it’s only because he holds the position and therefore regards it as a step up from being president.”

After all, Bloomberg is a leader who sought a third term amid the 2008 financial crisis, supporting council legislation that would extend the city’s two-term limit. He has begun a “super PAC” to funnel money to help elect centrist candidates from both parties who are focused on problem solving. And there has been widespread speculation about the possibility that he too would seek the presidency some day. He is not, in other words, someone looking to golf away his retirement.

I don’t know what Bloomberg is thinking as he prepares to leave office in January 2014. But it doesn’t seem a stretch to think he could have—as leadership thinker Jeffrey Sonnenfeld wrote in The Hero’s Farewell , an excellent 1988 book about the psychology behind chief executives’ retirement—a “heroic self-concept,” which makes leaders fearful of losing both the identity their position of power has granted them and their sense of “historic mission.” This, Sonnenfeld writes, is “a feeling that one has a unique role to fill and that only the hero is capable of carrying out the responsibilities of the job.” Indeed, in an overview of Bloomberg’s career, the Times writes that Bloomberg’s change of heart with regards to a third term came “as city revenues fell in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, posing a challenge he described himself as uniquely qualified to deal with.”

Of course, one way for leaders to feel better about losing that sense of mission is to feel they’re leaving the job in the hands of someone worthy of it. As Hank Sheinkopf, a New York political operative who has worked on past Bloomberg campaigns, told the Times, “he is looking for somebody he can feel comfortable handing the reins over to.” Surely, he would like to see someone capable, like-minded and experienced enough to fill the role. But if that person is a global icon who can lend her stature to the job that’s being vacated—all the better, right?

Jena McGregor is a columnist for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.

More from On Leadership:

Moral values and the fiscal cliff

Doris Kearns Goodwin on life, death and the presidency

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