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The Need for Homegrown Urban Leaders

The local figures who used to move their communities forward are in painfully short supply.

Richard Ravitch (left) with former New York City Mayors Ed Koch and Michael R. Bloomberg, 2009.
(Jemal Countess/Getty Images for Bryan Cave LLP/TNS)
Cities today face a leadership challenge. Their post-pandemic burdens include a demographic shift that favors suburbs and exurbs; downtowns dealing with the prevalence of remote work and a shortage of workers commuting to the office; and elevated issues of crime and homelessness.

Cities actually faced much bleaker times in the 1970s and 1980s, but leaders like the recently deceased Richard Ravitch in New York City stepped up to do the difficult work of shepherding their cities back to health. In a recent New York Times article, Nicole Gelinas talked about what made leaders like Ravitch effective: local rootedness, independent wealth embedded in the community itself; pragmatism; and a willingness to chart an independent course that sometimes resulted in conflict with other elites.

Changes in cities over the course of the last 30 to 40 years have greatly undermined local leadership cultures like the one which produced Ravitch, a lifetime New Yorker. Among the biggest culprits was deregulation that led to corporate consolidation, particularly in banking, utilities and retailing. Back in 1980, the banks in most cities were locally owned and were limited by law to their home markets. Their CEOs were extremely powerful both in their companies and communities. And their personal professional incentives were aligned with those of their locality. The only way to grow their banks or electric utilities was to grow the community where they were based.

Today, many CEOs of once-local companies are branch managers of global firms. Their job is to sit on local boards and dabble in community relations, but they don’t really call the shots anymore. Companies that have remained locally based now typically have national or global reach, so the local market is just one element in a vast portfolio. In a more nationalized and globalized business culture, those who aspire to high corporate positions must take great care to echo standardized positions, particularly around ESG (environmental, social and governance goals) and DEI (diversity, equity and inclusion). They are constrained by career considerations from taking any truly independent positions or actions.

Civic leadership has been democratized and diversified in recent decades. It’s no longer a small group of connected white male elites along with a Black leader or two, getting together in a room and deciding what to do. More inclusive leadership has brought many benefits — neighborhoods aren’t getting demolished for freeways today, for example — but has greatly complicated reaching consensus. With some exceptions like Dan Gilbert in Detroit or George Kaiser in Tulsa, few local business leaders today are able to step forward and assert leadership publicly or even behind the scenes. Civic leadership has been bureaucratized.

Another factor is the way members of the Silent Generation and early baby boomers — people born between 1940 and 1955 — have dominated, and continue to dominate, the leadership landscape of America. They were entrusted with real power at young age, often their 40s or even 30s. But they’ve failed to develop or empower a next generation of leaders.

The late Sen. Richard Lugar (born 1932) shows an older model. He was elected mayor of his hometown of Indianapolis at age 35, and went on to develop and push through major structural change that set the stage for four decades of urban success, including a city-county merger and creation of a new major public university downtown. He developed several high-profile younger proteges who remain the highest-impact leaders in Indiana, including Mitch Daniels, former governor of the state and president of Purdue University. Few cities could produce a leader like Lugar today. Even when Generation X or millennial leaders get a top position, they have radically less power than their predecessors did and cannot make those kinds of major institutional changes.
President Obama honors Medal of Freedom recipients - DC
U.S. President Barack Obama awards the Presidential Medal of Freedom to former Senator Richard Lugar of Indiana in the White House on Nov. 20, 2013 in Washington, D.C.
(Olivier Douliery/Abaca Press/MCT)

The result is a civic leadership culture in most American cities that is diffuse, bureaucratic, highly risk-averse, and with limited capacity to address major challenges or implement major civic initiatives or institutional changes. It’s not necessarily about individuals being weak people, but the overall context being much less conducive to producing strong and effective leaders.

There’s a great irony to this. Since 1990, there has been a vast expansion of leadership development programs in cities, yet there is less actual leadership today than there was before they existed. While the challenges facing America’s cities may be less severe today than in the past, the leadership culture is much weaker.

One exception may actually be New York. Though not without its own problems, New York still has talented leaders whose personal wealth is deeply tied to the value of Manhattan real estate. And its culture promotes vigorous public debate and offbeat views. This is an environment from which leaders can come forth.

But whether it’s New York, Chicago, Portland or Philadelphia, the cities that distinguish themselves today will be those where leadership emerges to do what needs to be done to move forward successfully.

Governing’s opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing’s editors or management.
An urban analyst, consultant and writer. He can be reached at or on Twitter at @aaron_renn.
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