L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa offers leadership lesson at USC

USC students enrolled in this semester’s Case Studies in Modern Leadership class have been pondering what makes a good leader.

They’ve been assigned readings on influential people — including Gen. Douglas MacArthur and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin — and have been schooled on what their instructor has identified as the six stages of leadership.

But lest the curriculum become too theoretical, this week they were paid a visit by a flesh-and-blood public official.

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa strolled in a few minutes after class began, accompanied by a swirl of aides. He took off his black blazer, perched himself on the edge of a desk, and launched into an hourlong monologue in which he discussed his political rise and his recipe for good leadership. He says it all comes down to “The Five Ps” — policy, politics, passion, persistence and people.


As crowds go, this was an easy one. The students, one of whom was taking the class because he wants to go into international business, another who signed up because she hoped to be a better president of her sorority, were polite and attentive. Most typed notes on Apple laptops, a testament to the reach of another leader students will study later in the semester — Steve Jobs.

According to professor Dan Schnur, a political scientist who has known Villaraigosa since he was a California assemblyman, overcoming adversity is an important quality in a leader. Villaraigosa agreed and told the story of his first mayoral race, which he lost to James Hahn in 2001.

Everybody gets knocked down at some point, Villaraigosa said. “But the good ones get back up and take the blood off their knees and keep on moving,” he said.

“So it’s that simple?” Schnur asked. “Get up and wipe the blood off of your knees?”


“It’s that simple,” Villaraigosa said. “Don’t feel sorry for yourself.”

Villaraigosa said he’s proud of his accomplishments as mayor, and especially the city’s reduction in crime. He said he’s learned the importance of building coalitions across racial and ethnic lines, and said cutting the city’s workforce against the wishes of labor unions in recent years — he once was a union organizer — has taught him that sometimes “you have to say no to your own interests.”

But during his time in office, he has also been bruised, like the ethics investigation into his unreported acceptance of tickets to concerts and other events, or the intense public scrutiny of his divorce.

Villaraigosa said he’s going to take a break when he leaves office in 2013, telling the class: “I want to take a time out.

“I want to write,” he said. “I want to speak.”

Although many have speculated about whether Villaraigosa has his sights on the governorship or another office, he promised that he has no immediate plans to run for anything. He said his focus is on ending his second term with a strong finish: “I’m operating right now like I’m at the end of the road and I’m riding off into the sunset.”