News & Research

Messy Business: Leading in regeneration

Posted by admin on 01 Nov, 2017

The authors of this article have produced a thought-provoking and intriguing take on leadership, moving – as they set out to do – from theory into empirical exemplars. As someone who has spent many years around leadership in the built-environment, regeneration, and spatial planning area, this article offers particularly fresh perspectives on some very familiar questions. The most interesting insights come out of the article’s discussion of leadership as process rather than as a quality or trait. Thus, the authors’ firm assertion that leadership is a product of relationships and interactions rather than the command-and-control exercise or “great man thesis” of traditional thinking is a welcome and refreshing perspective in public management. The article’s choice of urban regeneration projects and the focus and analysis of some of these processes of enabling leadership are key to developing the insight that the authors have achieved.

Urban regeneration projects are an ideal testing ground for leadership theories. Though usually co-ordinated by public-sector, or quasi-public-sector entities, they necessarily involve a multiplicity of stakeholders from those who live in the area, to land-owners and other commercial, political and other interest groups. Such projects, by definition take a long time to deliver, involve the expenditure of relatively large amounts of money, are disruptive, and seldom produce exactly the result that was envisaged at their inception. In short they are complex, multidimensional projects that require a very high degree of oversight and co-ordination to deliver.

Unsurprisingly, but nonetheless usefully, the authors discern that a higher degree of adaptive and enabling leadership is required for projects with a higher level of complexity. While administrative leadership can dominate in more straightforward situations, a wider range of strategies and greater sophistication is required to cope with more complex situations. Thus the authors detect greater deployment of adaptive and enabling leadership strategies positively correlated with the complexity of the individual situation.

One of the strongest challenges in regeneration projects is that of legitimacy – actors’ acceptance of each other’s rights or relative power to take decisions affecting the wider group. Thus residents may perceive their “stake” or interest in the project as superior to those of the public sector leadership agency who see themselves as funder or manager and thus having the greater “say” in the direction of the project. The nature of regeneration is that the interests of the future communities must be considered as well as those existing residents, and a careful balance between many interests needs to be struck. Inevitably, impacts on the wider area come into play, and further single-interest groups or factions of larger groups emerge. In all cases then, there is a high degree of contested space with regard to progress and decision-making within the project. This is where leadership is required.

Though it lies outside the scope of the article, a normative evaluation of the approaches pursued in enabling leadership techniques would be interesting. It is inevitable in projects such as those under discussion that questions as to whose interests are best served by decisions is a key source of suspicion, argument and conflict. Leadership from the public sector is generally tilted one way or another between democratic and bureaucratic functions, where political and economic imperatives may outweigh the small “d” democratic wishes of stakeholders in a particular project. However, these scalar judgements are integral to public management issues and particularly germane in the hothouse environment of regeneration projects.

To anyone familiar with regeneration, or any multi-stakeholder environment, the four core tensions identified in the article will ring particularly true. However, the dualisms set up by the authors neatly and usefully codify and encapsulate a wide variety of strategies and approaches that are used – or should be used – in leading in a complex and multi-faceted environment. Three of these dualisms those relating to buffering tensions, envisioning events, and managing networks can pass without further remark than is set out in the article. The fourth, relating to promoting and alienating actors within the process is intensely challenging. To this writer, the democratic mandate and oversight of large-scale regeneration is integral to the exercise and its legitimacy. The alienation of dissent or “protecting actors from external politics and top-down directives” are not value-free leadership actions. They are intensely political, and the significance and magnitude of such actions need to be acknowledged.

The particular examples chosen here are projects focused on the regeneration of housing in areas of disadvantage in Ireland and Northern Ireland. They are ideal studies to move the leadership complexity theory into an empirical space. It would be interesting to see this work carried into even more complex regeneration projects where significant commercial and financial interests would be added to the mix.

Lastly, these are necessarily post-hoc studies applying leadership theory to real-life examples. It would be worthwhile to see some close and ongoing studies of “live” projects to further understand the dynamics and mechanics of leadership up close.

Aidan Culhane is a consultant at WK Nowlan Real Estate Advisors in Dublin, where he advises on housing and planning matters. He is a chartered town planner and former special adviser on planning and housing at the Irish Housing Ministry. He also served as an elected member in local government for 12 years.