The traditional model of leadership is one that doesn’t show weakness. But a new kind of leader is emerging for a new era: a leader that admits they are just as anxious and overwhelmed by the dire state of the world as anyone else. Atlanta mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, who gave the opening remarks at Brandweek on Monday, has no problem admitting her humanity. “The greatest thing I’ve learned is that I won’t have all the answers,” Bottoms told the audience in a conversation with Marvet Britto.
Leadership in unprecedented times means asking questions and modeling different kinds of solutions never before tried. For Bottoms, it also means a crowded work environment.
“There are moments when I’m overwhelmed,” she said. “I have four kids and they’re also here at home doing virtual learning while I am being the mayor.”
Homeschooling aside, Bottoms has risen as a fearless new kind of leader amid the various crises of 2020. She’s clashed repeatedly with Georgia governor Brian Kemp on pandemic safety measures, blasting his decision to reopen the state’s businesses early in April. In July, as Covid-19 cases began to rise (the mayor herself tested positive in early July), she issued a mask-wearing mandate for the city of Atlanta. In response, Kemp sued her, despite not taking action against other Georgia cities that had instituted mask mandates of their own.
Speaking truth to power has been part of the mayor’s leadership style since before the pandemic. In defiance of the Trump administration, Bottoms signed a 2018 executive order forbidding city jails from holding ICE detainees and said that Trump’s immigration policies “intentionally inflict misery on a vulnerable population.”
At Brandweek, Bottoms spoke about how Atlanta has a long history of Black leaders resisting oppressive social and political policies. When Maynard Jackson became the first Black mayor of Atlanta—and of any major Southern city—in 1973, he faced enormous resistance. “He paid dearly for what he did for this city,” Bottoms said, explaining that sometimes a leader has to fight for what they believe is the right thing to do.
The influx of funding to Black organizations and HBCUs, many of which are located in Atlanta, reminded Bottoms of how Jackson invested in the city’s longterm economic sustainability through inclusion. When Jackson was elected, almost no city contracts went to Black-owned businesses even though the city population was roughly 50% Black. Now, Atlanta is a boom town, with entertainment exploding in particular as the state takes in $9.5 billion in economic impact from film and television (in 2017, Georgia became the number one filming location in the world, thanks to brilliant tax incentives.) Bottoms praised self-made Hollywood mogul Tyler Perry for carefully using Covid-19 testing and housing to continue production during the pandemic, helping to ensure that jobs were retained. This September, Perry—raised in poverty in New Orleans—became a billionaire.
But Atlanta’s resilience and relative success in uncertain times doesn’t mean it’s time to rest. As one of the most diverse cities in the nation, Bottoms warns, “We have gotten complacent.” One of her first moves as mayor was to establish an Office of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion and to appoint the city’s first coordinator of LGBTQ affairs. Bottoms even hired a journalist, TV news veteran Keith Whitney, to act as the diversity office’s chief content officer and help tell the individual stories of Atlanta’s diverse population.
“We think that things happen a certain way or that we’re immune to certain things because we’re Atlanta,” Bottoms said. “But we have to be intentional about diversity.”