Leadership and regions: unlocking the potential of communities

Every year the European Commission organizes Open days in Brussels, where EU Members of Parliament, national, regional and local policy/decision makers, Academics, students and researchers, can inform themselves on a variety of subjects. These Open Days host workshops and debates, and exhibition route, presentation of RegioStars -the most innovative projects co-financed by EU Structural and Investment Funds – and “Open Days University and Master Class”. See the programme.

open days 1The Regional Studies Association (RSA)  and the European Commission (DG Regio) organized 4 Master Classes, including a session for more than 100 participants on Oct. 9th 2013, on the topic of ‘Leadership and Regions: Unlocking the Development Potential of communities’, chaired by Prof. Dr. Andrew Beer. Besides Prof. Beer, Dr. Terry Clower (Texas), Dr. Henrik Halkier and myself were the speakers.  This report is based on the their presentations and the discussion with the audience.

The potential of leadership

Regions across Europe and around the globe are challenged to reshape their economies in the face of economic, social and environmental change. Global markets can shift rapidly, while natural resources may become depleted and/or previous production systems found to be unsustainable. This workshop examined the leadership of places and how it can be developed and mobilised to generate new, more sustainable, futures for regions and localities. The workshop considered the ways in which institutions, public sector agencies and community organisations can, along with individuals, demonstrate leadership and transform local economies. It examined the ways in which this potential is best integrated with the formal machinery of government, and how it can be nurtured within the most vulnerable communities and regions.

Place based leadership matters

Place based leadership is all the more relevant in the context of emerging adaptive challenges and wicked problems. Adaptive problems require experiments, discoveries and adjustments, new ways of behaving new values and attitudes, and people to internalize the change itself (Heifetz and Linksy, 2002). Leaders can guide and facilitate the process to ‘try to think the unthinkable’, stimulate imagination and align stakeholders around new agenda’s.

On the regional level there is often no single authority who holds the authority alone. There is a diffusion of power and a variety of public and private actors are active in the decision arena. How to align all these actors around a joint development agenda? This requires a form of leadership which is not persuasive but seducing, not individually exercised but targeted at building coalitions.

Furthermore is leadership relevant in the context of the knowledge economy as the “pace, scale and depth of pour knowledge processes will exceed anything that has gone before” (Gibney et al, 2009). Especially in the pre-competitive phase of new product development “there is a need for speed” as one of Philips top-managers said, which requires collaboration and open innovation. This is the reason why Philips is now cooperating with Panasonic and Samsung in the so called Holst institute in Eindhoven.

So place based leadership matters in the context of regional development, contributing to an improved: 1) capacity to set a vision for the future 2) likelihood to achieving that vision; 3) flexibility and resilience when confronted by change 4) social and institutional capital 5) vertical relations with government, and horizontal relations with partners and other stakeholders.

Open days 2What is place based leadership?

We have to make a distinction between the managerial type of leadership – mainly in the organisational context- and place based leadership which is relational, collective and more complex. Place based leadership can be characterized as a property of groups, based on mutual trust and collaboration, agenda-setting and tasks oriented, paying attention to group dynamics and engagement of stakeholders. Place based leaders work as change agents in formal and informal settings and work across boundaries: disciplinary, geographical, organisational as well as thematic boundaries.

Social network analysis

Leadership is multi-faceted. For example a variety of leaders can be identified on the regional scale such as quiet leaders, charismatic leaders, socially embedded leaders and subversive leaders. Those who seem to be the leaders like CEO’s, mayors or board members, are not always the real key players. Kingmakers, lobbyists, contingent leaders can also be considered as leaders or facilitate leadership. How to distinguish ‘real’ leaders from the ‘beauty pageant’ leaders, the people who have been effective in past times or the self-absorbed who’s contribution is dubious and overestimated?

According to Terry Clower social network analysis may give more insight in the quantity and quality of social relations of key players. Once networks are mapped, they can be accessed by 1) connectivity, the efficient sharing of ideas and the growth of the network 2) network health, such as the level of trust, diversity, power relations, etc. 3) network outcomes and impacts. Real leaders are not merely the ‘nodes’  with the most connections in the network, but people who are optimally positioned to diffuse information and attitudes; they are maximally connected to other nodes, and increase the bonding and bridging with other actors.

Path dependency

Path dependency drives institutions and development forward in a specific, enhancing long-term strategies and regimes. An example is leadership in Brainport Eindhoven in the south-east part of the Netherlands, rooted in the long term tradition of public-private collaboration and technology development in this area. Here a ‘triple helix constellation of key players aligned people around a joint agenda, used windows of opportunity, informal networks and negotiation ‘behind the scenes’ to attract new businesses.

Leadership plays a role in facilitating existing development strategies, but may also (try to) alter the direction of development. The term ‘place plasticity’ was used here to describe leadership beyond path dependency. An example is the case of North Jutland described by dr. Halkier, where the goal was to increase tourism by reframing the area as a holiday destination for people outside the region. Leadership here tried to unlock the ‘the ties that bind’ families to the coastal area and re-interpreted the characteristics of North Jutland to attract new target groups. This branding strategy was however not successful as the new storyline was more forced upon the area then rooted in the sense of place of inhabitants themselves. Also conditions such as a more flexible planning remained symbolic and didn’t lead to new innovations.

Relevance for practice

Cases on leadership in Australia described by Prof. Beer, illustrated that we mostly tend to tell ‘good news’. However, often we learn more from failures and mistakes. Good leadership is not universal, any form of leadership is in fact not universal. Leadership roles can be used to concentrate power and influence within a segment of the community. Leadership groups can be distanced from their communities and leaders can make poor decisions, or fail to act. Often leadership stories seem to derive from contingency theory, suggesting that effective leadership will arise if a city or community is confronted with a major challenge, which is not always the case. What we do know is that leadership is embedded and enforcing social relations and capacities. The building of social networks and coalitions is crucial for leaders in order to be effective in urban and rural settings.

For more information: L.G. Horlings, Rural Sociology Group, lummina.horlings@wur.nl.