News from the Top

Adaptive Leadership Needed Now More Than Ever 


A multitude of IDA emerging leaders will soon overrun New York City! A completely new cohort of 30 place management fellows will attend the first in-person Emerging Leader Fellowship (ELF) program since 2019. Cohorts from 2020 and 2021 will also complete their on-the-ground work in NYC this May. After years of online professional development, IDA’s premier leadership development program will deliver hands-on training from best-in-class New York BIDs on placemaking, activation and district assessments. Congratulations to the 2022 ELF cohort – and those from the previous years – you are the future of IDA.  

At the heart of IDA’s professional development and practice is the concept of adaptive leadership. It remains the foundation of the Emerging Leader Fellowship training program and central to how place leaders shape cities and evolve the role of district management within local civic governance.    

I recently revisited the origins of adaptive leadership dating back to the 90s and its creators, Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky of Harvard University. Briefly summarized, adaptive leadership works to address complex, longer-term challenges – like the revitalization or rebuilding of cities – by engaging the entire organization and exercising leadership in areas we may not have the explicit authority. In our case, this means engaging a multitude of diverse stakeholders within the district, including the private, public, and social sectors to begin collaboratively resolving the challenges of our day. Top-down solutions do not drive this leadership style but instead seek to engage broad participation, test new approaches and encourage innovation. It relies on a distributed leadership model, the very model our place management industry has used for decades.  

I was struck by the Amazon published description for Leadership Without Easy Answers by Ronald Heifetz, President and Fellows of Harvard College (copyright 1994).  

“The economy uncertain, education in decline, cities under siege, crime and poverty spiraling upward, international relations roiling: we look to leaders for solutions, and when they don’t deliver, we simply add their failure to our list of woes. In doing so, we do them and ourselves a grave disservice. We are indeed facing an unprecedented crisis of leadership, Ronald Heifetz avows, but it stems as much from our demands and expectations as from any leader’s inability to meet them. His book gets at both of these problems, offering a practical approach to leadership for those who lead and those who look to them for answers. Fitting the theory and practice of leadership to our extraordinary times, the book promotes a new social contract, a revitalization of our civic life just when we most need it.  

Drawing on a dozen years of research among managers, officers, and politicians in the public realm and the private sector, among the nonprofits, and in teaching, Heifetz presents clear, concrete prescriptions for anyone who needs to take the lead in almost any situation, under almost any organizational conditions, no matter who is in charge, His strategy applies not only to people at the top but also to those who must lead without authority–activists as well as presidents, managers as well as workers on the front line.”  

It seems oddly familiar and to a large extent, we find ourselves once again 30 years later amidst many of the same significant challenges: The uncertain economy, education in decline, cities under siege, crime and poverty spiraling upward, international relations roiling. The need for talented professional place management leaders remains essential. Just as our past members used adaptive leadership skills to give rise to the era of city center revitalization in the ’90s and ’00s, so too will we be required to leverage these skills to set a course for equitable rebuilding in a post-pandemic era.  

IDA celebrates a deep history and the many honored leaders who, over decades, shaped not only the cities we all love and cherish but also the gratifying profession we now call place management. IDA recognizes the profession has been established through the deliberate use of adaptive leadership, and we continue to instill its principles today. Perhaps best stated by the Boston Consulting Group: “Adaptive leaders create the conditions that enable dynamic networks of actors to achieve common goals in an environment of uncertainty.”  

Congratulations again to the 2022 Emerging Leader Fellowship cohort as you embark this year to strengthen your own adaptive leadership skills. And to the almost 200 fellows that have come before them and the countless future fellows who wake each day to make a difference, remember that lifelong learning is the key to growth and success. If not in the classroom, search online today for adaptive leadership so tomorrow you can shape your community for a brighter future.