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How Bad Leadership Spoils Good Planning

In many ways, a successful urban planner is first and foremost a leader, yet far too many professionals lack the ability to lead, and ignore the importance of cultivating good leadership skills.
September 18, 2006, 7am PDT | Leonardo Vazquez, AICP/PP
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 Leo Vazquez When it comes to learning management and leadership skills, professional planners say "I'm OK, but my boss and my colleagues could sure use some help."

Those were the findings from an innovative annual survey of professional development needs for planners, conducted by the Bloustein Online Continuing Education Program (BOCEP). BOCEP surveyed planners in Fall 2004, Spring 2005, and Fall 2006. More than 280 professionals responded to the three surveys. They were asked what subjects they would like to learn more about, as well as what their supervisors, colleagues and staff should learn more about.

The findings reveal what seems to be a blind spot among planners about their own leadership and management skills. Regardless of their position, the work of almost every planner involves leading and managing teams, individuals, projects, and relationships. Planners spend a significant amount of their time, if not most of it, on these kinds of tasks. Yet they seem more willing to find fault in others than in themselves.

This is a problem because bad leadership is expensive. Under the watch of poor leaders and managers, staff morale declines and workers feel less committed to the organization and its mission. That tends to lead to work of lesser quality and things getting done more slowly. Poor morale saps energy and contributes to an uncomfortable climate that turns petty disputes into interpersonal wars. And workers who lose their focus and commitment to quality are prone to making more mistakes. Even worse, poor leadership can stop planners from producing new ideas and solutions to problems. (If you've got a boss who constantly bullies, criticizes, or doesn't give you your due credit, why would you want to do anything extra to make him look good?)

As with planning, the problems trace back to bad assumptions and a lack of knowledge about leadership and management. A lot of people think that you need to pay people more money to motivate them. Wrong. There are plenty of low- and no-cost strategies you can use to motivate staff. Executives who want to improve performance will bring in "tough managers" or promote the most productive staff member as a "pacesetter". Yet, according to a study of more than 3,800 executives, coercive leaders and pacesetters actually reduce the conditions that lead to better performance. Leaders and managers who know when and how to coach, build consensus, or engage in partnerships are much more likely to enhance the climate for performance. (For those of you who are not executives, you're not off the hook: If you manage a staff, a team or a project, you're in a leadership position.)

According to the study, reported by Daniel Goleman in "Leadership that Gets Results" (Harvard Business Review, March-April 2000), leadership affects six key indicators of an organization's "working environment: its flexibility -- that is, how free employees feel to innovate unencumbered by red tape; their sense of responsibility to the organization; the level of standards that people set; the sense of accuracy about performance feedback and aptness of rewards; the clarity people have about mission and values; and finally, the level of commitment to a common purpose". Because organizational climate is highly correlated to organizational performance, if you see positive gains in one, you're likely to see them in the other. (By the way, for those of you who think this is all ‘touchy-feely' or ‘fuzzy' -- the organizational climate indicators are measurable, and the instruments used are valid and reliable.) The study looked at six primary leadership styles, and found that only two -- the coercive manager and the pacesetter, had a negative impact on organizational climate.

Though the study was not focused on planning, development and policy organizations, you would expect consistent (or even stronger) findings in our fields. We are part of the "knowledge economy." You can't bully or drag people into producing new ideas or solutions, or to being a better analyst.

You might look at this and think "oh, good leadership is just about being nice to people". However, it's far more complex. Coercive leaders can have a slightly positive impact on standards, and pacesetters on responsibility. As Goleman points out, no one leadership style is going to be the right one in every situation. Leaders in public service have to balance their concern for their co-workers with their responsibility to the communities they serve. As professionals whose work greatly affects the public, we have a responsibility to be efficient and effective. That's why learning about leadership and management is as important as learning about urban planning, community development or public policy.

Most planners have very little knowledge of or training in leadership and management. Two years ago, when I made a presentation about my leadership development program at the American Planning Association's National Conference, only about 5 out of a group of 70 planners in the room said they had received any training in leadership skills. Many planning schools either do not teach management and leadership skills, or undervalue it by making the topic just another elective. There's a sense, I think, that students will "just learn management skills on the job" (as one planning professor told me). You could say the same thing about statistics or economic analysis. (In fact, in some ways, it might be harder to learn leadership than to learn statistics or economics. You can predict how numbers will affect each other if you put them together.)

Many planners undervalue leadership because, I believe, they hold onto old, incorrect assumptions about the subject. The first is that you can't lead without formal authority. This is a huge error that causes people to disenfranchise themselves. Another is that leaders have to be charismatic. They don't. (And if you don't believe me, read the work of Warren Bennis, who is to the field of leadership what Jane Jacobs, Andres Duany, and Frederick Law Olmsted are to planning.)

The biggest problem could be that planners think the problem is "the other person." There's an ad for a company that says it can improve public involvement in planning. The ad shows a bratty-looking kid in a suit at a birthday party. The message this sends me is that members of the public who won't listen to planners are childish or spoiled. I often hear planners say that the reason that a community won't accept their ideas is "that they need more education on _________." Rarely if ever do I hear a planner say something like "we didn't do a good enough job reaching out to the community or listening to their concerns." If you're not willing to consider how you appear to other people, or how your approach affects them, you'll do yourself and your organization a favor by spending the rest of your career in a cubicle.

A lot of planners don't see themselves as leaders, nor do they want to be "leaders." When I asked incoming students at the Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy if they wanted to influence leaders, they all shot up their hands. When I asked who wanted to "be a leader," no one raised a hand. Here's the irony: you have to be a leader to influence leaders.

Leadership is the art and craft of influencing the thinking and behavior of audiences…to achieve mutual goals. Leadership is not about what leaders do, but the relationship between leaders and audiences. If you're not interested in influencing audiences, what are you doing in the planning field?

Some planners are concerned about becoming more effective leaders, and take half-day to two-day courses on the subject. That's fine for learning certain leadership skills, but you can't learn everything you need to know about management and leadership in four hours or even four days. Leadership is not just a set of tasks -- it is a way of thinking and behaving. There are tools, but no tricks, to good leadership. Unlike econometrics or statistics, there are no real equations to learn. No one can accurately predict how any individual, group or community will react under dynamic conditions. Effective leaders in the field of planning, community development and policy are nuanced and reflective thinkers. They take risks but avoid gambling. They see their world and their situations in 360 degrees. They have an understanding of the past, present and possible future, but are always willing to learn and to question their assumptions. You can't learn all these things watching a PowerPoint slide in the back of a crowded room. Leadership, like good planning, has to be developed and nurtured.

Leonardo Vazquez, AICP/PP, is an Instructor at the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy and Director of the School's Professional Development Institute. He is the creator of The Leading Institute, which provides innovative leadership development for professionals in urban planning, community and economic development, and public policy.

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