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December 2010 Featured Article

Local Government Leadership in Challenging Economic Times

Triad Associates

Most everyone has heard the phrase, “Leaders are born, not made.”  While this obviously refers to the many inherent traits of leadership such as natural charisma or personal appearance, it is increasingly understood that to a great extent, leadership can be a learned ability.

Organizations from small non-profits to large multi-national corporations have gotten involved in teaching their executives leadership skills.  Leadership training courses are offered in government as well.

Charles I. Barnard (1886-1961) was an American businessman and pioneer in the study of public and corporate administration.  Of particular relevance to the reader, he served for a time as President of the New Jersey Bell Telephone Company.  In his groundbreaking 1938 thesis, “The Function of the Executive,” Barnard identifies three essential characteristics of organizational leadership.*  These characteristics are particularly important in challenging times.  They include:

  • The need to establish and maintain a good network of communication;
  • The ability to secure essential services; and
  • The foresight and ability to define and implement the mission and goals of the organization.

So, what are the steps that local governments can take to provide strong leadership in challenging times?  Certainly, from the three attributes stated above, someone needs to clearly and succinctly articulate the challenges facing the government and community.   Then the next two important steps, “securing essential services and implementing the mission and goals of the organization” can be accomplished through developing a strategy to tackles those challenges in a comprehensive way.


Yes, it is easy for everyone to get caught up in the crisis of the moment or the problem of the day.  But in challenging economic times, strategic planning is more important than ever.  Communities need a strategic plan to address their short, mid and long term fiscal needs.  Political administrations change, mayors change, fiscal problems however, have a way of hanging around.


While they too often get addressed by short term fixes or accounting tricks, the underlying trends in the ratable base, tax rates, operational costs of government and mandated expenditures that are too often imposed on local governments remain.  Addressing these challenges requires a broad and a long-term look at fiscal trends and conditions.



Developing A Municipal Action Agenda

A Strategic Plan has three basic components.  The first is an analysis of existing conditions.  In order to assess effectively where a community may wish to go, there must be a clear understanding of where that community is now.  The second component involves defining that all-important vision, along with a series of goals and objectives that implement the vision.  The third component is the Action Agenda.  An Action Agenda is one outcome of a strategic planning process.  The Action Agenda is comprised of specific strategies and concepts that implement the vision and the corresponding goals and objectives.

Challenging economic times have huge implications for local government.  Businesses go bankrupt.  Revenue sources dry up.  Jobs are lost.  Service demands increase.  The cost of government becomes increasingly difficult to fund.  Coupled with the often growing and vocal demands of local constituents, the fiscal and administrative obligations of government and the costs of providing services without a coherent strategy becomes almost impossible.



The Importance of Planning for the Longer Term

Problems of a great magnitude do not appear overnight.  So it is going to take a while to solve them.  Leadership in challenging times demands a willingness to make the hard decisions today so others do not have to make harder decisions in the future.  President Obama and our Congressional leaders face decisions today with huge long-term implications.   They have two basic choices: they can choose to make some hard decisions regarding budget cuts, the future of social security and entitlement spending, and other issues, or they can “kick those cans” down the road for others to resolve.


The Infamous and frequently forgotten “Plan B”

Life is unpredictable.  In local government, as in life, things happen that can radically alter even the best and most professional plans and forecasts.  Leadership in challenging times needs to recognize this and have a Plan B ready.  Plan B’s are often those strategies that address the worst case scenario.  It has been said that successful administrators are often those who plan for the worst case scenario because anything better than that can be easily managed.


The Importance of Teamwork

Good leaders – strong leaders – surround themselves with strong people.  Strong people make for good teams and teamwork is essential in resolving problems and dealing with challenges.  Leadership in challenging times requires a willingness to hear points of view that might not be pleasant, but when given respectfully and professionally are absolutely necessary in order to frame and successfully resolve difficult issues.


Seek Technical Help


Even the best teams and the best leaders fail.  Nobody has all the answers all of the time.  Good leadership again, requires a recognition that outside technical assistance may be necessary.  Do not be afraid of an alternative or wholly independent point of view. 


While we all recognize the fact that leadership and consensus building are difficult tasks during both prosperous and trying times, defining a clear mission and creating an agenda to achieve the stated goals provides a clear concise plan to tackle those challenges while keeping everyone focused on the over mission of the community.



*Barnard, Charles, “The Functions of the Executive,” Harvard University Press, 1938.


Triad Associates is currently the League’s Grant Consulting Firm. Their firm, which is known for its expertise in community and economic development, including strategic planning, redevelopment, acquisition, relocation and funding, has brought diverse plans and projects to life by generating more than $580,000,000 for over 120 public, private and nonprofit clients throughout the Northeast region since 1978. Every member of the Triad team is personally committed and dedicated to the success of its clients and the projects that benefit communities.


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