Steward Leadership: Two “Aha!” moments in economic redevelopment

Posted by Matthew Thomas

Economic redevelopment in areas with a long history of decline faces many challenges. Decades of declining public revenues and population reduction create castle-strong institutional silos among agencies of government and community support groups, and often reinforce decline as certain expenses, such as public safety, rise, drawing off limited revenues from reinvestment. Leaders often get overwhelmed with where to start, since the problems are so complex, so interrelated, and attempts at solutions are significantly under-funded. Furthermore, the most capable leaders with the highest capacity take opportunities elsewhere and move away when they become frustrated with lack of progress, thus compounding the resource drain the community experiences.

matthew-thomas-2I have the opportunity to chair the local downtown economic development non-profit in my community, the Warren Downtown Development Corporation. Warren DDC is currently preparing for an organizational re-launch sometime late in 2014. Ironically, process of re-launch has required us to steer away from words like “redevelopment” and “revitalization”, since those words serve to remind people of the negatives – the blight, the economic depression, the sense of “blah” that pervades business as usual. There are two “Aha!” moments to this that we have discovered:

The first “aha” is to find ways to work toward resolution of the problems the city faces in the downtown area, without reemphasizing the problems in a way that detracts psychologically from the progress we are attempting.

The second “aha” is to find specific problems we can address, large enough in scope to make a difference, yet specific enough that a small start-up can measure actual results, thus establishing a track record worthy of more significant funding and more ambitious projects.

There are many charitable purposes that can benefit from this kind of strategic development. Principles of good organizational design and strategy-making are common across a variety of causes and purposes. Steward leaders know they have a trust from some set of owners – whether the “general public” or someone less amorphous – and must set about to build specific results toward that owner’s ends. This steward purpose drives leaders toward benefits that go far beyond the specific activities they perform. Where does your steward leadership take you?

Wrestling with how best to impact your community? 

It begins with design.

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Topics: Matthew Thomas, steward leader, economic redevelopment,