Leadership guidelines for the cities of tomorrow

city leaders

City leaders play a vital role in shaping the development trajectory of their city; they set a far-sighted aspirational goal for the city and drove a single-minded and practical approach towards the vision. The governance structure and the extent of a leader’s or mayor’s empowerment definitely have an impact on a city’s leadership. However, important characteristics that civic leaders need to exhibit, such as pragmatism, businessfriendliness and a can-do attitude, remain consistent irrespective of the governance structure.

Leaders need to:

  • Develop a culture and mindset of agility among employees
  • Promote the measurement of performance
  • Create structures that reward impacts on the urban environment (rather than rewarding outputs)

Wear multiple hats to balance internal and external issues

City leaders have to balance both internal and external issues, as cities are increasingly engaged in the global products and services value chain. The leaders need to exert influence both internally (influencing the leadership team and the people in the civic body) and externally (the surrounding environment, citizens and their expectations). This requires not only having a high level of awareness of local and global environments, but also evaluating new prospects and threats against the city’s vision and plans. To accomplish the balancing act of tackling internal and external issues, city leaders must assume different roles within and outside the organization, based on the situation. These roles include:

  • Decision-maker: City leaders should make data-driven decisions and encourage civic officials to do the same (though all data may not always be available). As technology is already widely adopted, and with the drive to increase legitimacy and transparency, city leaders can increasingly make data-driven decisions rather than those based on “gut feelings”.
  • Public servant: Non-linear communication channels can enable city leaders to connect directly with citizens to address their concerns and raise their views on key issues about their urban environment. Technology now enables leaders to reach out to their constituents directly at a personal level and develop trust.
  • Standard-bearer: City leaders must establish personal standards of ethical leadership, effective management practices and moral behaviour as examples for other officials. Adherence to those standards leads to trust and openness to fulfil the vision.
  • Boundary setter: By leveraging sharing and collaborative platforms, city leaders can communicate the clear ethical boundaries that officials and stakeholders must follow when dealing with civic officials, and take appropriate action against violations.

Adopt new models for delivering urban services

City leaders must benchmark their cities against the very best, particularly those in urban services delivery. Barcelona, Amsterdam and Singapore, for example, have set global benchmarks for using technology to understand ambient situations and make data-driven decisions. Importantly, while cities embark on adopting new business models for delivering urban services, city-level leaders must effectively distribute their responsibilities and authority among individuals who exert different types of power (e.g. institutional, technical, financial). A common purpose and distributed leadership capacity will eventually allow a city’s leadership to bring in the required agility to promptly react to changing circumstances.

The leaders need to weigh the risk of taking no action against the risk of making decisions with potentially unknown implications. City leaders need to be strong and decisive in pushing through the desired transformation, take calculated and well-informed risks and guard against assuming the default position of risk aversion.

A good city leader not only energizes the organization, but also creates meaning with context, moving people to action to jointly achieve the shared vision. Such a leader needs to create a legacy and a framework in order to ensure that future leaders can draw on the foundation while making key choices.

As a leader, am I:

  • Creating an organizational culture developed on diversity and not on standardization or “group think”?
  • Managing from the standpoint of relationship and not position, and developing management methods based on dialogue
  • Developing the ability to give and take authority with the purpose of creating high legitimacy, both outwards towards the surrounding environment and inwards towards the organization?
  • Being clear about the vision, goals and direction of the organization I am leading?
  • Developing my employees and their competencies?
  • Creating a climate of openness and trust for dialogue, even in difficult and complicated matters?
  • Being courageous enough to take responsibility for my own and my employees’ successes and failures?
  • Working from the basis of a strong personal commitment, and prepared to make decisions and reconsider them?
  • Being aware of, and alert to, the surrounding environment and inclined to innovation?

*) This case study is an extract of the World Economic Forum report: Inspiring Future Cities & Urban Services and was written by Alice Charles, Cities & Urban Development Expert, Urban Development Lead, World Economic Forum & External Board Member, NAMA

Alice Charles

**) Featured image: Martin Pettitt (cc)

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