City leaders need to remember why they are there – as custodians, building future success. It is easy to focus on short-term gains and lose sight of the potential to make long-term changes. A good city manager may be in post for ten years, but he or she has the ability to affect the lives of its population for the next 50 years. It is a long game.
Legacy is important – everyone wants to be remembered. But vanity projects are not the answer. As with Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, city leaders must provide the basics for their populations first – access to clean water, safety and security, accommodation, transport, healthcare and so on. A successful city is one that goes further and creates a sense of belonging and purpose.
A city has arrived when people identify with it irrespective of nationality or ethnicity – they become Bristolian, New Yorkers or Muscovites. There is no template for these ‘higher functions’ but I would suggest that each municipality needs to build on its strengths – a sense of place and community are essential.
City leaders face different challenges, but they all need the ability to inspire, communicate and perhaps most importantly to listen - both to their colleagues and to the public. I have spent my whole career helping people build and lead big infrastructure projects – everything from transit systems to hospitals, schools or airports. In my experience, project leadership and project management are among the biggest single determinants of success or failure.
An uninspired leader will create an uninspiring project. If you want people to go beyond the everyday, work harder and strive for excellence, then you need to be able to inspire them. Interestingly, I have often found that inspiring leaders are also the best listeners: people who can take information and feedback coherently to either the populous or their staff.
Some of the biggest leadership challenges are around having a clear vision, and being able to communicate it effectively. The vision ideally should be a consensus, derived from listening to the public, reading the trends and responding to what they need. The current financial environment means it is more important than ever to be able to build a consensus between civic authorities, developers and the public.
Staying in touch with the original vision, while consistently bringing projects in on time and on budget with the expected benefits is the hallmark of a truly effective leader. There are a few examples that spring to mind – people like Sir Howard Bernstein in Manchester, or David O’Brien in Mississauga who have delivered solid financial management and growth over 20 years.
Having said that, creating the infrastructure that is required in a successful city is so complex that it cannot be the work of one individual. Making promises to the public and then delivering on them require very different skillsets.
Delegation is key. A good leader rarely breaks a sweat. Fundamentally, the leader’s job is to empower his or her people to do their jobs while keeping their overview of the entire project. If one individual holds too tightly on to every detail, it has the effect of slowing everything down, which is ultimately bad for the city.
Maintaining momentum is part of the leader’s mandate – many of these projects will take years to deliver and decades to pay back on investment. Continuing to justify a project over the time it takes to come to fruition will be an ongoing challenge. I can foresee municipal leaders having to make the same justifications repeatedly – but then cities are not built in a day, a year or even a single lifetime. Leaders need to hold on to their purpose and keep their eyes on the horizon.