By Jim Edmonson

Communities across America are in economic and social transition. Productivity gains and competition have turned manufacturing upside down. We have entered the information age, with completely reinvented communication methods and the divide between the haves and have-nots increasing. We have the talent and know-how to thrive in the new economy, but do we have the leadership to guide us through serious issues such as workforce development and diversity, as well as education, health care, and infrastructure upgrades?

I recently heard two programs on leadership. Both programs reminded me that I have always believed that economic developers must be good leaders, not just good managers. After all, we are responsible for the economic welfare of an entire community, and therefore, simply churning out retention calls, making attraction appointments and preparing monthly reports just don’t cut it–particularly in these times of economic transition.

In an article for Harvard Business School, Deborah Blagg and Susan Young point out the growing number of book titles dealing with leadership. They explain this phenomenon with a quote from Harvard Business School professor John P. Kotter, who sees the phenomenon as a sign of the times: “The transition from the industrial age to the information age is a huge shift. In all of human history, there have only been two other socioeconomic revolutions of this magnitude: the move from hunting and gathering to agriculture and from agriculture to industry. We know that leadership is very much related to change. As the pace of change accelerates, there is naturally a greater need for effective leadership.” Harvard Business School professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter adds, “Times of upheaval require not just more leadership but more leaders.”

So we need more, and more effective leaders. Where will they come from and how do we create them? In my opinion, economic developers are a key source of leadership and leaders; as a profession we must step up and take strong leadership roles. But what makes an effective leader?

In an article for of Leading Edge Consulting, Kathy Holdaway states, “Leadership is an art and a science. It is an art because it continually evolves, changes form, and requires creativity. It is a science because there are certain essential principles and techniques required.” Although you can pick up any number of books or articles on leadership and find lists of the traits and qualities of good leaders, Holdaway provides as good a description as most: “A good leader knows when it is time to change shape because they are highly attentive to those around them. Coming from a position of strength, a great leader takes risks by freeing up the creative genius in their followers to build their capability. By powerfully communicating a vision a great leader is able to transform organizations.” And for economic developers, this includes transforming communities.

Of the two programs I heard, the first was a sermon that spoke of great leaders of biblical times whose roles were to protect, provide and guide. As I listened, I couldn’t help thinking about these leadership traits in the context of economic development.

Economic developers protect the economic interests of the community, its businesses and citizens from external and internal events. This includes protecting business activity, community support systems, institutions, and organizations, and being a good steward of resources by understanding the region’s competitive advantages. It means maintaining strong families and neighborhoods, and strength in the community at large. A holistic approach is best, one that understands and protects all sectors of the community: public, private, non-profit and judicial.

As economic developers we must provide opportunities for all citizens. We must provide a sustainable engine for creating wealth in a community and a vision for the entire community to embrace. Economic developers must ensure that infrastructure is adequate and systems are in place to stimulate business expansion.

Most of all, we must guide the community by making tough decisions that encourage innovation, challenge community institutions, create change and introduce new opportunities and management systems. Generally speaking, strong leaders are able to make the right decisions, not necessarily the favorable ones.

The other leadership program I recently heard was an audio program about Napoleon Hill’s Science of Personal Achievement, The 17 Universal Principles of Success. If you have never read about or heard the program, you should. During my second pass through the program in 5 years, I rediscovered one basic and important leadership trait, a positive mental attitude.

For twenty years, Hill studied the great leaders of his time, including Carnegie, Morgan, Kaiser and Edison, and perfected a list of the leadership principals that brought them success. He concluded that all great leaders and successful people possess a positive and extremely flexible mental attitude. They are patient, temperate, and tolerant of all points of view and the needs of others. Leaders with positive mental attitudes persevere, communicate effectively, and make prompt decisions. If they make a wrong decision, they quickly make another to correct their error. Great leaders have a sense of humor, including about themselves. They are versatile, just, honest, and possess humility of heart. Finally, they are ambitious and convey hope.

My advice to economic developers is to start with a positive mental attitude, and lead by practicing these traits as you protect, provide for and guide your community. The great motivator, Zig Ziegler, would say, “See you at the top.” As a result of your success, you’ll see your community at the top, too.