Thursday, January 2, 2014

Leadership Starts by Asking the Big Questions

Guest post from January ENGAGE panelist Jeremi Suri. Jeremi is the Mack Brown Distinguished Chair for Leadership in Global Affairs at The University of Texas at Austin. You can read more of his writing on his website:

Successful leaders do not believe that they have the correct answers. They do not have set plans. Policy-making in a period of rapid change and multiplying uncertainties offers few clear paths forward. The role of leadership, especially in a city like Austin, is to make sure diverse stakeholders are energized to explore the big questions: What kind of city do we want to live in? How can we grow while preserving the qualities that have made Austin so livable and attractive?

The model for the leadership we need today in Austin is neither charismatic nor technocratic. Charismatic figures are eloquent and persuasive, but they encourage simple choices and polarized opinions. We have enough of that already. Technocratic leaders have detailed knowledge about key issues, but they have trouble seeing the connections that matter most for life, economy, and community. Too much obsession with the details can make inspiring change impossible.

The most successful cities in the United States are governed today by figures who see themselves as brokers with a vision. Urban officials must speak to different groups and take their interests seriously. They must manage diverse revenue flows from taxpaying families, local businesses, tourists, and state and federal agencies. They must also oversee complex spending flows through school districts, police and fire departments, municipal transportation units, housing agencies, and other services of last resort.
There are no consistent formulas for reconciling these different interests. The revenues and expenditures are often unpredictable, especially when the local economy is growing quickly but unevenly. City leaders must constantly adjust to bring different groups into balance, serving many masters and re-defining the common ground that addresses the broadest set of urban needs. This is the fundamental brokering function of city leaders—the core of urban politics.

Vision, however, is essential to making urban politics serve a higher purpose. Successful cities have leaders who continually remind negotiating groups that they should work toward something larger than just their immediate interests. Skilled leaders do not dictate a vision, but they motivate stakeholders to see personal value in looking forward toward a larger image of what their city should be like, and what role they should play. A city is, after all, as much an idea as a reality. Urban groups must see themselves as part of something more than themselves—a community—and leaders must help them articulate this vision and its service to each stakeholder’s long-term goals.

No one person or group can impose a vision on another one, especially in a large and decentralized city like Austin. A common idea of what Austin is about must emerge from continual engagement among diverse stakeholders. The common idea will constantly evolve, building on a venerable past as it adjusts to the opportunities and demands of the present.

City leaders are not the dictators or even deciders for the governing vision of Austin. They are the facilitators of the process, insuring its depth, fairness, and representativeness. City leaders must keep the engine of the city running as they push citizens to steer together to a mutually beneficial destination. City leaders cannot presume to know the precise coordinates or the exact route for the destination. Their job is to ask, time and again: Where are we going? How will we get there? How can we keep everyone on board?

NOTE: The opinions of Leadership Austin alumni, faculty members, and guest bloggers are their own, and do not represent an official position of the organization. To purchase tickets to the January 8 ENGAGE breakfast featuring Jeremi Suri, please visit the Leadership Austin website.

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