Leadership Lessons from the Mayor Who Put an Obese City on a Diet

Mayor Cornett's citywide weight-loss challenge revived the town's small business scene, and revealed strategies for undertaking ambitious goals.

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By Tanya Benedicto Klich

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A few years ago, a fitness magazine ranked Oklahoma City among America's most obese places to live. After reading this, Mayor Mick Cornett entered his own height and weight into a government health website and found out that he was in fact obese. Both results plagued him.

So on New Year's Eve of 2007, he announced to the press: "This city is going on a diet." He challenged the citizens - and himself - to lose a collective 1 million pounds, setting up a website where more than 47,000 citizens registered for the OKC Million program and tracked their weight.

Cornett knew that if he wanted to get people to get fit, he had to rebuild this commuter-friendly town for pedestrians. This meant adding new, wider sidewalks, biking routes and a larger park. When he proposed a 1-cent sales tax hike to fund these projects, it was welcomed with open arms due to its alignment with the health campaign, which had gained national attention.

By January 2012, the city hits its million-pound goal. It was removed from the same magazine's list of America's fattest cities and even landed a cushy spot on America's top 10 fittest cities. Cornett says Oklahoma City also made the Kauffman Foundation's list of most entrepreneurial cities, as several local businesses capitalized on the public health initiative.

In 2012, Garbanzo Mediterrannean Grill, a casual Greek-style eatery with a predominantly healthy menu, signed its first franchisee in Oklahoma. Ed Lynn, a local Buffalo Wild Wings franchisee, signed the rights to open up to 10 Garbanzo locations. Mayor Cornett, who admits his city has "long been home to too many fast food restaurants," credited Lynn's master marketing skills for packaging Garbanzo as the healthier alternative for Oklahomans on the go.

Related: Franchises Lead the Mediterranean Food Trend

"I get asked why Oklahoma City was so successful while weight-loss programs in other cities often fail," says Cornett. "It was because we gravitated toward the food intake message, not just the exercise portion."

The mayor adds that Gold's Gym also benefitted from the city diet. "They invite me to their ribbon cuttings and I see a vast increase in health club memberships following the health campaign," Cornett says.

And as young professionals began flocking to the thriving metro, Cornett says large companies have kept their headquarters in Oklahoma, instead of moving to Dallas or Houston. "We're home to several energy companies who can now hire the type of employees they need," he says. "If your city can't attract top talent, then it can't grow."

Leadership Lessons from the Mayor Who Put an Obese City on a Diet
Before and After

Here are four leadership skills that turned Mayor Cornett's vision of a slimmer city into a concrete public health victory.

1. Lead by example. The mayor became the proactive poster boy for the health program after he called a press conference at the city zoo, posed in front of the elephants and announced that he, and the whole city, would be going on a diet.

2. Set a clearly defined goal: Saying "we have to lose weight" is one thing. Assigning a quantifiable number to it - 1 million pounds - made it real.

3. Keep the budget in mind. When it came to transforming the city's infrastructure, the mayor stayed within budget by implementing a temporary one-cent sales tax initiative, which will expire in December 2017.

4. Stay true to your message, even if it's a tougher stance to take. "Other leaders around the country who take on obesity over-emphasize exercise," Cornett says. "You can't exercise your way out of obesity and we never backed out of the message that you have to eat differently."

Related: Channel Your Inner Politician

Tanya Benedicto Klich

Data & Featured Lists Editor

Tanya Benedicto Klich is a data and lists editor at Entrepreneur.com.

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