At a Louisville City FC (USL pro soccer) game in Louisville.
Louisville City and Metro, Kentucky
In the belief that people “are born to do good,” Greg says he always ran his companies “as platforms for human potential to thrive,” because he found this not only improved employee performance, but contributed to the happiness and success of family and community.
Drawing from that experience, he says he has felt it critical as mayor that the city view its policies through a “value lens.” Among the values he champions are life-long learning, compassion, and actions that “make us healthier”—physically and spiritually.
Greg defines compassion as working to ensure that every person has the opportunity to reach their full potential, which includes showing respect for others. He believes society tends to “beat kindness and love out of us,” often encouraging citizens to embrace tactical advantage rather than a core value system that underscores what we have in common.
He knows some may criticize such a philosophy as corny, but he feels strongly that a city’s greatest challenges like lack of social mobility and risk of civil unrest come from a feeling of hopelessness that can be cured by a sense of interdependence and connection. “When we work together—recycling, educating, policing and everything else—we get more done,” he says.
Armed with this ethos, Greg had a mission: What practical steps could the city take to activate its compassion?
One natural strategy is to promote volunteerism. Greg has instituted a “Give a Day” Week of Service as part of the city’s annual Kentucky Derby festival, this year engaging 180,000 volunteers (out of a population of out of 770k) to do such things as help kids learn to read, build beds for families in need, plant trees, stock food pantries for the underserved, clean up neighborhoods, and write thank you cards to vets.
Another is partnering with institutions: with schools, to incorporate more explicit values in their curriculum; with healthcare providers, to care more about patients and their families; and with religious and media organizations, to spread the word.
Greg also advocates making the compassion message a tool of economic development. He cites the huge win that came from bringing a company of 1000 employees to town. He says he asked the CEO why Louisville was chosen over 40 competing cities, and was told it was because of Louisville’s focus on compassion.
As a particularly symbolic action, Louisville has partnered with the Dalai Lama, known worldwide for his Buddhist advocacy of gentleness and kindness, who has visited Louisville and had his team members come at other times to talk about the thirst of mankind for deeper meaning in life.
Finally, Greg advocates never accepting an imperfect status quo: The city has a large ongoing study of wellness, nutrition, mindfulness, and empathy, finding a connection, for example, between opening hearts and minds and cognitive and neural development potential in its 25 elementary schools.
With a wink, he points out he has used his “serious proclamation powers” as mayor to declare Louisville the world’s most compassionate city—and that no one has challenged the designation. Indeed, he says that the International Center for Compassionate Cities, chartered in Seattle to study compassion in cities, has also so named it five years in a row.
Born in Louisville but spent a few years with family in Chicago and New York before returning to his hometown for high school. An economics major at Vanderbilt (’80), he became an inventor (of an automated ice beverage dispenser) at age 25, then created a company around it, then started an M&A advisory firm, then became a tech and manufacturing investor.
In 2010 he won election as mayor, and was re-elected in 2014. “I’m an entrepreneur who just happens to be mayor,” Greg tells us.
Paid for college by working three summers in Kodiak, Alaska, working long hours as a crane operator (he still has a time sheet showing 132 hours one week). Went to Alaska because he was working as an industrial roofer in Louisville (where he learned to steer a crane), and it got so hot he wanted something cooler, so a friend suggested Alaska. Also worked there as a “salmon grader.” Learned to recognize four categories—dog, pink, silver, and king—so he could quickly throw fish into different tanks.