There are five essential ingredients for civic leadership: interest, knowledge, resources, position and skills. To explain briefly: To be leaders, people need to be interested in civic work, otherwise . . . well, they won’t do it. They need to know the community’s challenges and opportunities and how the community deals with change. They need to bring resources (connections to money and votes are the traditional ones, but access to ideas is fast becoming the third). They need a position that confers a legitimate place among community leaders; it can be mayor, chamber of commerce leader, neighborhood association chair, non-profit leader or interest-group representative. And they need the skills of leadership, which increasingly are about building consensus. Put these ingredients together, stir vigorously and, voila, you have a leader.
But while these ingredients will earn you a place among leaders, they won’t make you a great or even good leader. For that, you need a sixth ingredient: perspective. There are two parts to perspective. The first is learning to see problems as part of a thinking process and not just as issues. In doing so, you’ll sometimes find that you and your fellow leaders are thinking about things the wrong way. The second part is to identify which events in communities are replays of long-standing problems and opportunities, and which are truly new.
Why is this important? Because the job of civic leaders is to deal with their community’s most pressing problems. If you can’t answer this question—is this a new problem or have we dealt with it before?—then almost surely you will not find good solutions. Don’t get me wrong. Answering this question won’t give you the solutions, but knowing the answer will guide how you’ll search for them.
You can see how this works by looking at a common problem: downtown revitalization. If your city has a downtown, leaders have probably been trying to “save” it since the 1920s, when the automobile became popular and personal mobility expanded dramatically. As people moved farther out, retail followed, and many downtown stores shut their doors or joined the exodus. What followed was one failed attempt after another to compete with the new shopping centers and enclosed malls: free-parking schemes, pedestrian malls, skywalks and urban shopping centers.
Downtowns began turning around in the 1980s when leaders changed their perspective. Rather than asking how they could make central business districts more like suburban retail areas, they asked how they could take advantage of the things that made downtowns unique: historic buildings, sidewalks, mixed uses, access to transit and so on. They added some new ideas, like business improvement districts that improved safety and maintained streetscapes, and at long last downtowns began turning around.
You can see how the two parts of perspective worked here. First, leaders recognized that they had a long history with downtown revitalization and that most of their efforts had been disappointing. Second, they looked at the decision-making process itself and realized their greatest problem was how they were thinking about the problem.
For familiar issues, then, studying the record and examining the decision-making process will often yield new perspectives and better results. But what about problems that are truly new? The good news is that there aren’t many new of them. Most of the issues facing cities have been seen in some form or other before. But every once in a while, something comes along that has no antecedent.
The automobile presented that kind of challenge in the 1920s. Nothing before it—not horse-drawn carriages, steam-engine railroads or electric trolleys and subways—prepared cities for cheap personal automobiles. Previous generations of leaders did many things wrong in dealing with the car (running major highways through the heart of cities, for one), but in many ways it is amazing they coped as well as they did, considering the swiftness and magnitude of the challenge.
Today, I can think of only two major issues that are similarly without precedent. The first is the internet and in particular its effect on politics and civic involvement. This may be more an opportunity than a challenge, but it will be an important force in the future. From reporting common problems (through innovations like New York’s 311 system) to organizing protesters and volunteers, the internet is changing how citizens and leaders interact—and maybe even who becomes leaders in the future.
The second is the problem of retrofitting suburbs for their more urban futures. Yes, we do have a record of successfully remaking some suburban-style areas around mixed use and transit, but the scale of change in the suburbs of the past 20 years has been so vast—unimaginable shifts in demographics, overwhelmed transportation infrastructure, aging households, and social and public safety problems that were once exclusive to inner cities—that it’s hard seeing how the rickety political and civic structures of the suburbs can cope.
What do you do when the problems or opportunities are truly unprecedented? How do you find the right perspective? Studying the past won’t help. Rather, you have to become a student of the present and keep up with what your peers in other cities are doing. (This is why access to ideas is becoming a key resource for leaders.)
But also be skeptical. In the breathless world of news and information today, first reports are often wrong. Breakthrough ideas are sometimes overstated or depend on factors that don’t apply to your situation. Think of unintended consequences and guard against the “confirmation bias” of seeing what you want to see. And above all, grant that complex problems rarely have simple solutions. If they did, then free parking really would have turned around downtowns.