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.

 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.





Is about time planners stopped hiding behind other professionals and stood up to lead the great debate which befalls our various civilizations....where do we want to be in the future and how do we plan to get there!!!


Great Comment.

How bad leadership spoils good planning

Urban Planner is a visionary,utopian and above all one who knows future.But his acceptibility is low as he does not address to present problems in general.Interface between public/politiciana and planners is missing.Planning education must include leadership and management as part of their curriculam.I agree with author that leadership can not be left to individual to learn from on hands exeperience from the field.
Congrats to Author and Planetizen for bringing this issue for discussion.

Leadership and economic development/planning

There unfortunately are a death of management programs for planners. I am a "centaur" in the field--half economic development professional, half planner. I also count myself lucky in never having had a formal planning class. Oh I've had plenty of continuing education classes, attended countless forums, and received various certifications, but not a single university class. Fear not,I can talk planning with the best of them...and economics...and real estate development.

Rather, my undergraduate degree is in political science where I learned the basics of local government, one of my graduate degrees is in Public Relation/Journalism and my other graduate degree in Management

I agree with the premise advanced by the writer that in the main there is poor leadership in planning. For one, most planners communicate in jargon that is understandable by other planners, planning boards(if you are lucky) and developers. In this way too many planners are more like engineers in style than marketers. Moreover, they tend to manage from a top-down perspective. This means that creativity is stifled and employees are unable to open the 2 way communication that is so necessary to good management.

This is not to pin the blame in full on the planner. Most planners are under incredible pressure from local political leaders to produce--and that makes taking time for progressive management a bit difficult to say the least.

Interestingly,(and this is anecdotal)I have found economic development professionals to be better managers. Some of this is because, for better or worse, economic development has been reduced to a sales function in too many places and sales begets better communication which begets better management. Moreover, economic development people tend to spend more time in the company of business people, thus they are exposed to the more progressive leadership and management techniques.

I am a rarity within the field of planning and economic development in that my degrees align not with the field, but with organizational functions. I think it has made me a better manager. The technical aspects of planning/urban revitalization I can pick up on my own. When it comes time to rally the staff and communicate the goals I am well positioned. Thanks. Economic Development Visions.

Charles D'Aprix(Chuck D'Aprix)
The Downtown Entrepreneurship Project and Economic Development Visions

A Planner or Systems Manager

Mr Vazquez,

Thank you for highlighting an interesting subject for the planning profession. I’m actually surprised more folks didn’t reply.

I would like to add another topic to the work that planners do besides “leading and managing teams, individuals, projects, and relationships” and that is: manage systems and process.

A system or process can be any instrument put in place that affects the work flow or outcome of individuals and or organizations that are tied in some way to the system or process. In the case of the planning profession, the systems and process include local, state and Federal legislation; government structures and decision making, and policy development. It takes an awful good planner to understand and use these systems when trying to affect outcomes. Or in some cases, most just ride the wave and hope for the best.

Managing change is the biggest challenge for planners. Community consciousness in environmental and social considerations has increased, while there has been a greater demands for public accountability and public involvement in the decision making process. In addition, there is corresponding pressure on governments to respond, has meant more and more layers of State and local government regulation being added to deal with each new issue, with little thought being given to the impact on, and objectives of, the system as a whole.

There lies the problem; planners should become not land use planners but system planners with a land use component. For example, it’s interesting that the “six key indicators of an organization's working environment” actually include human behaviorist issues ike ‘responsibility’, ‘standards’, ‘performance and feedback’, and ‘commitment’.

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