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Under broader set of leadership styles, planners can serve as leaders in communities

Monday, July 23, 2018

LAWRENCE — Much past research and common perception communicated to those in urban planning was that if they wanted to serve as leaders, their only choice was to run for political office.

This attitude has likely frustrated younger planners who are energized and just entering the field, and it also is more in line with a narrow view of leadership, according to a University of Kansas researcher.

"The definitions of leadership really started to expand and get away from the old notion that to be a leader you need to be charismatic and heroic, and to be able to get people to follow you, you have to have some sort of authority," said Bonnie Johnson, associate professor of urban planning and associate director of the KU School of Public Affairs & Administration. "New theories of leadership open up a whole other world where leadership can be a group activity or shared. There’s also a new recognition that knowing how to be a good follower is key to leadership as well. Leadership doesn't have to be one charismatic person."

In a new article, "Planners as Leaders: Finding Their Comfort Zone," published in the International Journal of Public Leadership, Johnson conducted a content analysis of codes of ethics from professional planning organizations around the world, seeking to decipher the existence of major theories of planning and descriptions of potential leadership roles defined for planners.

Johnson said the key challenge appears to be overcoming the stigma faced by planners when working for local or state governments or as contractors serving the public indirectly via contract, they have obligations as administrators, educators, facilitators, advisers and technicians and are thus subject to limitations associated with being unelected public service providers.

It is also common for elected officials to not want to feel beholden to technical experts and so planners often want to avoid being seen as leaders, she said.

But new avenues of different types of leadership theories can allow leaders to operate within teams or groups, especially in collaborative settings, which are more in line with how planners function in their communities and the expertise they can provide to support elected officials and management, Johnson said.

"I think changing that thinking would open up that shared- or team-leadership model and would actually be something that planners would find rewarding and comfortable in that they are not having to be the sole individual leader and not the ones always following someone else," Johnson said. "More in line with the idea that I am a team member with these citizens and elected officials and we're all working together."

Certification educators and university planning educators should make a more conscious effort to emphasize various leadership styles as they work with planners already in the field or those currently training and preparing to enter the field, she said. It potentially could help with retention in the planning field and guard against some of the issues and discouragement younger planners might face.

"If we can channel that energy into some leadership styles that make sense and so that energy of new planners can be constructive and allow them to accomplish things, that would be great," Johnson said. "And it would probably help them be happier in their jobs."

Giving younger planners more information about different leadership styles can help them create their own repertoire so they can draw on a variety of skills when needed in whatever the context.

"It's not like there's only one type of leadership. If you find the ones you can do and you realize you have this one in your hip pocket, just in case," Johnson said. "And you can be a leader. The answer isn't that you can only lead if you run for office."

Photo: Bonnie Johnson, associate professor of urban planning and associate director of the KU School of Public Affairs & Administration, meets with a neighborhood group to discuss planning issues. Johnson is author of a study that found community planners could serve as leaders under broad leadership styles rather than simply choosing to run for office. Courtesy: Bonnie Johnson.