7 Essential Traits of Leaders

With an historic presidential election behind us, the topic of leadership in America and in our communities has become a front burner discussion. Here’s a few thoughts on what we think are essential attributes for leaders at any level of government, business, non-profits and academia.

7 Essential Attributes: All Seven Are Necessary for Success
“People would rather follow a leader who is always real versus a leader who is always right. Don’t try to be a perfect leader, just work on being an authentic one.” –Brad Lomenick

Integrity

Integrity is like the foundation of a house. It’s not the first thing you notice, yet without it, the house won’t stand and all the fancy amenities won’t matter.

So what is integrity? It is saying what you mean and meaning what you say. It’s keeping promises, its resisting temptation to be corrupted and it means telling the truth. But it also means a lot more than just telling the truth. It means not being silent when you see something wrong. It means being able to hold yourself and others accountable and it means always acting ethically.

Quote: “If you have integrity, nothing else matters. If you don’t have integrity, nothing else matters.” –Former U.S. Senator Alan Simpson.

Empathy

Empathy is the ability to understand what someone else is experiencing or feeling. It means an ability to tune into others, to listen and to understand. Leaders need to be able to connect to people. They need to be able to probe beneath the surface, to sense conflict before it erupts and nip it in the bud and they need to be able to sense the mood in a room and adjust their communication accordingly.
Quote: “Leadership boils down to strong relationships. Before I can be an effective leader I have to know the players, they have to get to know me and we have to trust and know each other.” – Coach K. of Duke.

Emotional Intelligence
Leaders need to understand their blind spots and weaknesses as much as their strengths. They need to evolve and adapt to new challenges. They need to work well with diverse personalities.

Quote: “Until you know yourself, strengths and weaknesses, know what you want to do and why you want to do it, you cannot succeed.” –Warren Bennis.

Vision

Every good leader has vision. Leaders imagine a better future. Visionaries understand that leading is a job to do not a job to have. They are transformational leaders, with a clear vision of a brighter tomorrow. They are able to think long term and focus beyond the daily grind.
Visionary leaders inspire. They are optimistic and they never lose focus.

Quote: “Dreams are extremely important. You can’t do it unless you can imagine it.” – George Lucas.

Judgment

Good judgment is essential for effective leadership. Good judgment means good decision making. In leadership positions, you will often have to make dozens of decisions on a regular basis. Sometimes you will be given time and information; sometimes you will have to make quick decisions with little information. As a leader, you can’t afford to be indecisive. You have to answer the call.

Three tips for developing good judgment and making good decisions.
1.Zero in on what’s important
2.See the whole chessboard
3.Take decisive action.

Quote: “Mistakes are not the ‘spice’ of life. Mistakes are life. Mistakes are not to be tolerated. They are to be encouraged.” –Tom Peters
Courage

Leadership is not for the faint of heart. If you want to lead, conflict is inevitable. Leadership means being on the front lines of conflict. It means having the courage to take a stand and know that you will make some people angry. You will make friends and you will lose friends. In leadership positions: you will be tested every day.

Quote: “Courage is doing what you’re afraid to do. There can be no courage unless you’re scared.” -— Eddie Rickenbacker World War I hero

Passion

Passion is the drive to achieve, to make a difference, to put a dent in the universe. Without passion, without drive, you cannot be an effective leader. You have to wake up every day driven to learn, achieve, master and move toward your goals and vision. Passion drives progress.

Quote: “The most powerful weapon on earth is the human soul on fire.” -— Field Marshal Ferdinand Foch

Strategy+Team=Success

I’m a big fan of Fred Wilson.
He’s a highly regarded NYC based venture capitalist who writes a fascinating blog on investing and technology.
This time of year, he’s spending his time in board meetings planning for the upcoming year.
When you are involved in a successful enterprise, board meetings are exciting. It’s fun to talk about growth and expanding market share. But when you are in struggling enterprise, board meetings can be very challenging and often stressful.
Wilson believes the keys to success are having a strategy and building a winning team. Here’s what he has to say:
“You have to get the strategy right and you have to have a team that can execute it without your day to day involvement. The CEOs that I work with that are struggling are usually running into issues with their team and/or their strategy. And the CEOs that I work with that are doing great generally have gotten the strategy set and have built a strong executive team underneath them.
This sounds so simple. But it is not.
Most of the companies I work with didn’t really start out with a strategy. They started out with an idea that turned into a great product that found a fit with a market. And they jumped on that and used it to build a company. Most of them wake up at some point and realize that a single product in a single market is not a strategy and they need to come up with a plan to get a lot bigger and build a sustainable and defensible business. I like to think that this is one place where a good investor group can help. If we are doing our job, we push our portfolio companies to work on their long term strategy and refine it to the point where it makes sense and is executable. But an investor group cannot give a company a strategy. It has to come from the founder/CEO and a small group of senior leaders. The smaller the group that is working on strategy, the better. Strategy is not something that can be done by committee.
The second thing, building an executive team that can execute the plan without day to day involvement of the CEO, is even harder. Most of the companies I work with go through a lot of hiring mistakes on the way to building this team. Some hire too junior. Some hire too senior. Some hire bad cultural fits. Some hire people that are nothing but cultural fit. And an investor or investor group can help with this but I believe that founders/CEOs need to learn how to do this themselves and make these mistakes. The best thing an investor group can do is to help a founder/CEO to understand when they have the wrong person in the job. Or help them understand that more quickly.
These are both areas where experience is huge. The CEOs I work with who have done the job multiple times get these two things right much more quickly. But even they can take a year or two to get these right. First time CEOs often take three or four years to get these things right. But sticking with founders who are first time CEOs through this process is usually worth it because they have a connection to the initial vision and mission that a hired CEO has a hard time replicating. There is not a good rule of thumb on this issue (who should run the company). Facts and circumstances on the ground will generally determine how that should go.

My final point on this is that once you have the strategy and team locked down, you should step back and let the machine do its thing. I like to say that CEOs should do only three things; recruit and retain the team, build and evolve the long term strategy and communicate it effectively and broadly in the organization and externally, and make sure the company doesn’t run out of money. When those are the only things you are doing, you are doing the job right. Very few CEOs get to focus on only these three things all of the time. Things break and you have to fix them. But when the machine is working and you can step back and watch it hum, it is a thing of beauty.”
Amen.
This blog likes to focus on cities and there is a real parallel between what Wilson is talking about and building a successful community. And there are some differences.
First, strategy can be substituted for a community vision and while for business Wilson recommends a small group be involved in crafting strategy, in a city it helps if you have as many stakeholders involved as possible. It’s the job of elected leadership to prioritize, hone and drive the vision and it’s the job of city staff to implement in a timely and efficient manner.
But cities get in trouble when there is no strategy, vision or plan. And they get in trouble when egotistical leaders decide to keep their own counsel and cut themselves off from input or debate.
They also get in trouble when they decide to micromanage and delve into the day to day operations of the city. If you find that you are doing this, you need to stop. If you find that you need to do this because your staff can’t or won’t execute, you need to get new staff. But elected officials need to stay in their policymaking box (which is plenty big) and allow staff to do their jobs. Ideally, you should try to create a culture of experimentation and innovation not fear.
If staff can feel confident enough to think outside the box and solve problems legally, ethically and efficiently you will succeed. If they feel bullied, micromanaged and or afraid to make a mistake you have created a culture that will fail to solve problems or seize opportunities. Your best talent will flee, you will not be able to attract top tier talent and you will turn lemonade into a lemon.
I happen to believe in outcomes over process. That does not mean that process is not important or that you shouldn’t have a process. But it does mean that outcomes are more important— as long as you act legally, ethically and morally.
It shouldn’t take three weeks to type a basic building permit. It shouldn’t take a year to approve a mixed use development. It shouldn’t require an act of Congress or a deity to get a parking agreement and or a developer agreement. If it does, you got a problem.
Strategy and team; you need them both. One doesn’t work without the other. And if you are deficient with either or both, you have major problems and you cannot succeed.

Keepers of the Flame

Jan Gehl is an award winning Danish architect who has worked on high profile projects all over the world.
Recently, he visited the Harvard Design School to discuss the role of politics and leadership in driving improvement in cities.
In his experience, he believes “the personal factor is very strong in bringing about transformative urban changes”.
Gehl’s new book New City Spaces talks about nine cities that have really turned things around, and in nearly all of the cases, it started with some centrally placed person or torchbearer who had a vision. It might have been the mayor of Curitiba, the longstanding director of urban design in Melbourne, or the mayor in Strasbourg. In Copenhagen, the city architect, city engineer, and mayor worked together, and in Portland it was more or less the Greens winning the election in 1968 that brought significant change, according to Gehl.
“It (transformative changes) could come from the bottom or above, but very seldom did it grow out of the day-to-day administration of the cities. It was often a force from the outside, or a new officer or a new politician.”
Interesting and I have no doubt that Gehl is correct in his diagnosis of the cities he has studied.
But I would argue that another model—outside the hero mayor or architect narrative—is citizen driven planning or visioning. Delray used this transformational model effectively from the late 80s until the mid 2000s for plans relating to the downtown, neighborhoods, culture, education and parks.
It works.
In many cases, change is driven by a threat or by conditions that are so poor, they drive people to organize and push for reform. In Delray’s case, the threat was a plan by the Florida Department of Transportation to widen Atlantic Avenue to facilitate hurricane evacuation. While this may not be the best week to argue against that notion, it was widely believed that if FDOT was successful we would have lost our downtown forever. Instead of being a narrow, pedestrian friendly street promoting slow traffic, the avenue would have been a highway—good for evacuation bad for urbanism.
I’m hoping the new effort relating to the city’s update of its Comprehensive Plan is more like an old school visioning exercise than a top down exercise designed to check a box for the sake of optics because community visioning is critically important and so is the Comp Plan.
Gehl is correct when he notes that transformation rarely grows out of day- to -day administration.
Same goes for business.
When you’re leading or running a city or a business, you really have two considerations: the day to day and the future. You have to consider both or you are doomed to failure or disruption.
So yes when a citizen calls to complain about a tree branch you need to respond. But, you also should be thinking about your tree canopy and whether you have planned your open spaces well enough. Leadership requires taking care of the present and planning for the future.
In a council-manager form of government, in which the mayor’s position is supposed to be strictly policymaking and part-time (the part-time part is a fallacy, trust me), you can’t wait for a hero with a vision to come to rescue. It’s up to the citizens to take responsibility, but leadership is critical. The best leaders seek input, constantly engage, try their best to raise the level of conversation and once adopted become the chief evangelists and defenders of the vision.
And believe me; the vision will need defending because change is never easy nor universally accepted especially if your vision is ambitious and not boring or incremental.
Every city aspires to be a great place to live, work and play—but the devil as they say is in the details. Vibrancy requires activity and public spaces may need to be activated.
Change while often resisted is also inevitable. So you can count on your vision being challenged on a regular basis. The best leaders are guardians of the flame. If they resist the urge to cave when the critics emerge and trust in the people’s vision your vision will gain traction and soar. But if they capitulate—the vision will die and along with it any chance of meaningful change. Oh and you’ll lose the trust of citizens who helped to forge the vision and counted on you—the elected leader—to ensure it moves forward.
That’s a high price to pay.

Vision, Courage + Urgency=Success

Vision.
Courage.
A sense of urgency.
If you want to succeed as a city or a business, you need all three.
Two out of three, just won’t cut it. All three traits are non-negotiable.
Unless of course, you don’t really want to succeed; if you want to pay lip service you can skip one or more of the aforementioned and you’ll fool a few people but you won’t get anything done.
Vision is a big word, but it can be as simple as an idea or as complicated as a breakthrough innovation. I think it also requires a particular mindset: you have to be aspirational and you have to know where you want to take things.
Examples of vision, courage and urgency abound.
Dollar Shave Club sold this month to Unilever for $1 billion.
Fueled by a clever viral video, Dollar Shave Club took a simple idea—make it easy to buy cheap razors and solved a painful problem. Razors are expensive and they are often kept under lock and key in the pharmacy. Blades are inconvenient to buy and ridiculously priced. But Dollar Shave Club made it easy, they had the courage to go up against industry giants and they had a sense of urgency to make it happen.
A small (but growing fast) hot sauce company I’m involved with also has a simple idea. We think the market leader is old, tired, vinegary, watery and doesn’t taste good. So we created Tabanero, using premium ingredients and a complex recipe that we believe tastes great. We are a long way from a billion dollar exit, but we just gained placement at Publix, Sprouts, Lucky’s and all the big food distributors. We are on our way. We have a vision, we are fearless and we are peddling as fast as we can.
Same with another company we are heavily involved with; Celsius which seeks to disrupt the beverage industry which is filled with iconic giants such as Coke and Pepsi. But Celsius is a healthy alternative to sugary soft drinks and seeks to capture a market that doesn’t want aspartame, sugar, corn syrup, artificial flavors or preservatives. The Celsius team has courage, belief and a tremendous desire to seize the day. Working with people who exhibit these traits is an energizing experience; pun intended.
That mindset translates to cities as well.
Delray’s vision was simple: revitalize a town that had good “bones” and make it a desirable to place to live, work and play.
Now mind you, ‘live, work and play’ is not a revolutionary idea. Thousands of communities have adopted that mantra—but if you look closely only a few had the courage and the sense of urgency to make it happen.
Why?
Who knows?
But you can bank on resistance to progress, long lines of protesters, lawsuits and election challenges if you try and make change.
Delray had the courage to do it anyway. And leadership also had a sense of urgency and a desire to take advantage of good economic cycles. Some may call it making hay while the sun shines.
Boca had a vision too. Consider Mizner Park for example. They were challenged, but they persevered and got it done.
Pittsburgh saw its steel mills close but had a vision to reinvent their economy around medicine, education and robotics. Their sense of urgency in doing so was important because without a wholesale reinvention, the Burgh would have sunk into the ooze.
Last week, I got a call, (I won’t say from who) other than he was a property owner who is concerned that Delray has lost its vision and sense of urgency. The guy is not a household name per se in Delray, but he’s owned some strategic pieces over the years. His identity is really not important.
It’s not the first call of this nature that I have received. Mostly, the calls are laments that complacency has set in, political divisiveness too and that the economic cycle may be closer to the end than the beginning and that we didn’t make hay, in fact we chased the hay away.
Yeah, I know development is controversial. And for good reason a lot of times. Some of it, maybe even most of it, can be generic, lacking in imagination, poorly designed and more of the same old, same old.
But that can be fixed. Architects, developers and designers can be and should be challenged to do better.
It’s possible to make places people friendly and to design spaces that complement or improve their surroundings.
Some cities have created design studios to help ensure that projects are the very best they can be.
When famed new urbanist architect Andres Duany came to Delray for a town hall lecture, one of the first things he said was that cities should never make developers and architects guess—they should engage with projects early in the process and shape them so that they enhance the built environment.
Legendary former Charleston Mayor Joe Riley felt that mayors were the primary architects for their cities and had a responsibility to make sure that each project was as good as they could possibly be. Now, truth be told, there are limits. After all, most mayors, including Riley, are not architects or designers, but if they take the time they can learn enough to help make projects look and feel good.
FAU’s Abacoa campus used to have what they called a Florida Public Officials Design Institute, which sadly became a victim of budget cuts. It was a great program; it helped me a lot on the original vision for the Congress Avenue corridor and ideas for the four corners of Military Trail and Atlantic Avenue.
Nationally, there is a Mayor’s Institute for Civic Design which has a stellar reputation.
But there are limits too, I admit. There are property rights and if a developer, with his or her own risk capital wants to build a certain building they have a right to do so—as long as they follow the rules.
Still, most developers I have met are open to being challenged and open to design ideas, if as Duany notes, you engage them early– before they spend big bucks on plans they will be reluctant to toss in the trash.
Mix is important too. I agree with the lament about endless condos, even though I am a firm believer in the need for– and wisdom of –downtown housing if we are to have safe and sustainable urban cores.
But charmless boxes are just that—city codes should encourage good design, varied styles and features that please the public.
But talking about design is a very different conversation than the ones we typically have, which is usually about chasing development away or pretending that we can prevent change. We shouldn’t do the former and we can’t do the latter, even if we wanted to.
We should be talking about design and the very real challenge of how to allow cities to evolve without losing their essence, uniqueness and charm. We should also be talking about mix—how can we encourage cool uses and what’s missing in our community—i.e. workforce housing, co-working, boutique theaters, studio space etc?
That would require vision.
In order to achieve the vision, you need courage.
And in order to drive change, you need a sense of urgency.
If nobody’s waking up every day with a burning passion to make a difference, it tends not to happen. And those communities, businesses and organizations that do have a burning desire will clean your clock before you even know what happened to you.

Building a Front Row Culture

I’m a huge fan of the author/blogger Seth Godin.
Not only does he write amazing books (“Purple Cow”, “Linchpin” etc.) he blogs every single day. And most days, he hits it out of the park. That’s just remarkable.
Last week, he floored me with his blog entitled “Front Row Culture.”
Here it is…
“The group files into the theater, buzzing. People hustle to get to the front row, sitting side by side, no empty seats. The event starts on time, the excitement is palpable.
The other group wanders in. The front row is empty and stays that way. There are two or even three empty seats between each individual. The room is sort of dead.
In both cases, the CEO or the guest speaker is going to address the group for an hour. But the two groups couldn’t be more different.
The first organization sees possibility; the second sees risk and threat. The first group is eager to explore a new future; the second group misses the distant past.
The truth is this: it’s possible to hire for, train for and lead a front-row organization. And if you merely let entropy take over, you’re going to end up with the second, lesser, failing organization instead.
Worth saying this as clearly as possible: The culture, the choice of front row or back row, is a choice. It’s the result of investment and effort.
Where would you rather work?”
I read that blog at least five times. And then I thought, not only is this thinking applicable to businesses but it applies to cities as well.
“Where would you rather work”, can easily be replaced with where would you rather live?
For me, the difference between a “Front Row” culture and lethargy is the difference between aspiration and fear.
I’m attracted to communities that aspire.
I’m attracted to cities that have vision.
I like places that are willing to experiment and open to new ideas.
I think the cities that work are those that emphasize outcomes over process. Sure, you need rules, ethics, bidding and procedures but those procedures ought to facilitate outcomes, not hinder progress or change. We can nitpick or we can progress.
It shouldn’t take 20 attempts to issue an RFP and it shouldn’t take years to approve a project. You ought to be able to get a fence permit fast and you ought to be able to grab an attractive investment and entitle it quickly so you can be ready for the next one.
Front row cultures empower residents, business owners and public servants. Places that aspire enable and encourage people to solve problems and chase dreams.
The focus needs to be on creating opportunities for current and future residents—you always have to be focused on the future.
“What’s next”? is always the key question.
Complacency is a killer. Aspiration and possibility trumps fear and dysfunction and creates quality of life and place.

Moving the Big Rocks

When it comes to publicity very few people can match Donald Trump.
But Mr. Trump met his match last week with the immense amount of coverage given to Pope Francis on his maiden voyage to America.
The Donald and the Pope talk about many of the same issues, immigration, income inequality and climate change, but with all due respect to our Palm Beach neighbor, I prefer listening to Pope Francis’ message—and I’m not even Catholic.
While he was visiting the U.S., Pope Francis skipped out on Congress to eat lunch at a homeless shelter, visited a Philadelphia jail and in one of his most stirring public addresses, reminded mass-goers to stop averting their eyes.

“In big cities, beneath the roar of traffic, beneath ‘the rapid pace of change,’ so many faces pass by unnoticed because they have no ‘right’ to be there, no right to be part of the city,” he said at a mass held Friday at Madison Square Garden in New York. “They are the foreigners, the children who go without schooling, those deprived of medical insurance, the homeless, and the forgotten elderly. These people stand at the edges of our great avenues, in our streets, in deafening anonymity.”
Pope Francis knows that our shared future depends on building cities where all people have the opportunity to thrive. But how do you do that?
There are ideas galore from across the country on strategies that work. There are best practices relating to housing, crime, neighborhood revitalization, economic development and education.
But I would argue that the first step is always a decision on whether you want to do these things.
Many cities say they want to tackle their problems, but often it’s only words. But the cities that act are the ones to watch and the communities to emulate.
The problems we face today are vast, serious and seemingly endless and intractable. Most Americans would agree that Washington is broken and that their state governments, while usually more functional than Washington (a very low bar indeed) are also vast and distant from most people’s day to day lives.
The answers therefore must come from the cities, smaller communities that can marshal resources and people and actually solve or at least improve problems if they choose to do so.
The operative word though is choose…cities must commit.
I’m a fan of citizen-driven planning. When done well and with the right motives and people in the room, there is no more powerful tool that communities have than to create a blueprint by engaging as many stakeholders as possible.
I’ve seen this strategy change cities, including Delray Beach and I have seen cities fail to advance because they don’t engage their stakeholders.
So who are the stakeholders?
They include residents, property owners, non-profit organizations, educators, social service providers, law enforcement, business owners etc., anybody who has a “stake” in a city’s past, present and future. These are stakeholders, not special interests.
But often cities fail in their visioning and planning if they try and cut corners by either convening for the wrong reasons (to check a box), restricting input, rushing the process or the common mistake of dictating from the top.
Community engagement takes longer and can be messy. But engaging the public has magical advantages including buy-in and better ideas.
But once you commit, you had better deliver.
When I look at my city of Delray Beach and my neighbor Boca Raton, I see two really different but complementary communities with vast resources and amenities. But I also see challenges and opportunities.
There is great wealth and great poverty in our communities. There are safe neighborhoods and dangerous ones. There are kids who thrive and children who struggle with poverty, violence and dysfunctional home lives.
Cities are fascinating places because they have obligations to the past, present and future and they have responsibilities to all people—including the invisible and the struggling, the people mentioned by the Pope.
We can honor the past by preserving our historic neighborhoods and buildings, but also by recognizing the hard work that went into long term visions for our cities. We can serve the present by adapting those visions for today’s needs and by ensuring that current residents, from all walks of life have a place in our planning and in our communities. And we can create a better future by remembering that we are stewards. Therefore, it’s not all about our needs, wishes and conveniences; we also have a responsibility to our children and grandchildren as well.
Back in the day, we called some of these issues “the Big Rocks”. And we were determined to move them, even if ever so slightly forward. In Delray, the big rocks were education, crime, neighborhoods, race relations, building a vibrant and sustainable downtown, supporting culture, preserving the beach and creating jobs beyond food and beverage. In Boca, which had good schools, strong businesses, culture and neighborhoods I saw the big rocks as mobility, creating a downtown core and building on some remarkable foundations; medicine, education and technology.
Washington may or may not be fixable—but our cities are pockets of opportunity for us to work on big challenges and be beacons for others to emulate. You just have to choose to move the big rocks.