The Washington Post

Even if D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray was ignorant of ‘shadow campaign,’ what does that say about his leadership?

Questions about Mayor Vincent Gray’s knowledge of the “shadow campaign” may be ultimately cleared. But questions about his leadership capabilities likely won’t be. (Jahi Chikwendiu/WASHINGTON POST)

What did Vincent Gray know and when did he know it?

That’s one of the key lingering questions in the probe surrounding the D.C. Mayor’s 2010 campaign, which is investigating what’s being called a well-funded “shadow campaign” that is said to have helped to get Gray elected.  

Gray does not appear to have directly addressed the question. When asked explicitly about what he knew in a news program Friday, he replied “we ran a campaign based on the laws and principles of the District of Columbia.” When asked when he first knew about the unreported expenses, Gray has said “that’s part of the investigation.” And apparently, he has repeatedly denied knowing about other payments made by a Gray campaign official and consultant to a fringe mayoral candidate in order to disparage Gray’s chief opposition, then-mayor Adrian Fenty.

Those responses are raising more question than they answer. As Mary Cheh, one of three D.C. council members who has called for Gray to resign, asked: “How could all this go on and you don’t know?” Especially given Gray’s reputation for “obsessing over the minutiae of governance,” it’s easy to wonder how he couldn’t have been aware.

The “I didn’t know” comeback is a common one for leaders, even if it rarely does them much good. No matter how busy your life, no matter how many jobs you’re holding down, no matter how sprawling the organization you’re leading may be, the ignorance excuse usually falls short—even if it’s true. As the Post’s editorial page put it, “leadership is about putting together a team to carry out your direction and accepting responsibility for the outcome.”

Leadership is also about being in touch with your organization. It’s about being a good judge of people and making capable, trustworthy hires. And perhaps most important, leadership is about creating a culture, putting in structures and setting a tone where those who do know about wrongdoing feel comfortable coming forward.

Even if Gray truly didn’t know anything about how money that allegedly came in from a prominent city contractor was being disbursed—or, as has been reported, didn’t know until January of this year—somebody within his campaign surely did. In the right culture, that person would have felt able to step forward so that the leadership could put a stop to it. It may be possible that questions about Gray’s knowledge of the “shadow campaign” are ultimately cleared. But questions about his leadership capabilities likely won’t be.


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Jena McGregor writes a daily column analyzing leadership in the news for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.



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