It might seem a bit odd to start a blog with the punchline, but for those who know me know I like to keep my eye on the prize when any change is being contemplated. And, in my business, we are asked to help communities manage change every day. In some cases, change is occurring and they want to get the tiger by the tail. In others, they really need a little change to start happening to help attract investment once again.
There are hundred of tools out there to accomplish those goals. I’m not sure that we have deployed all of them in the past fifteen years, but we have a seen a great many be pulled from our quiver. But, for all the design strategies and partnership programs and civic investments, there is no more powerful tool that good, old fashioned leadership. This is true not just for community building but also for company building as well. In fact, solid leadership is a key differentiator from organizations who succeed and those who do not.
And so, its seems particularly timely that I write my first entry about leadership on the (near) eve of the retirement of the country’s longest-serving and arguably the most successful mayor in modern times. Joe Riley, at his retirement, will have served the citizens of Charleston, SC for forty years, having been elected to ten consecutive terms. Mayor Riley has been a leader with a singular focus throughout his political career – to make Charleston a world class city through a careful balance of historic preservation and the attraction of high-quality new investment. With literally millions of visitors each years and billions in new investment in both the city and through the region few can argue that Mayor Riley’s influence wasn’t key ingredient.
Mayor Riley and his beloved Charleston may be atop the pedestal upon which all other cities strive to achieve, but there are many, many other great modern leaders whose passion and drive made a difference in their communities. I suppose I have a soft spot for great Mayors. Early in my career, I worked for a Mayor for a small southern town (Belmont, NC) who cared for his community and worked tirelessly to make it a better place. Mayor Kevin Loftin was one of the city’s youngest mayors in recent memory but he led the community through a downtown revitalization project that is now the envy of the region. As a young planner, he taught me about the necessity of vision in leading any organization.
And while none hold a flame to Fiorello La Guardia, the mayor credited with building the modern New York City, the list of great mayors whose passion and leadership have transformed their cities is grows longer every year. The list of great community leaders is not exclusive to chief elected officials. More and more, leaders are growing out of neighborhoods and business districts where the pattern of declined was turned around but a advocate, businessperson or property owner who dedicated their efforts to creating a better place.
In University City, MO a suburb of St. Louis, local developer and businessman Joe Edwards has been credited over the past two decades with transforming the Delmar Loop area into what the American Planning Association recently recognized as one of America’s Great Streets. In Seaside, Florida, more than thirty years of dedicated leadership by developer Robert Davis continues to cast a long shadow over this influential resort neighborhood.
Project after project, year after year, I have come to realize that without a leader to see a vision to fruition, someone to see through the opposition of those who would advocate for the status quo, a passionate implementer of a grand plan – there is little that can substitute. Those that would advocate for urban sustainability point to the three legged stool of environmental, social, economic achievement. To them I say that all of that is for naught without solid, passionate, visionary leadership.