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  • ChrisDaley

Cities Can Learn from Leadership Theory (Aradhna Oliphant Interview)



Bridget:

So Aradhna, we've been hearing a lot about leadership these days, and you run a leadership institute that works with all different professions in age groups. Two questions for you. What does leadership mean to you and what's been on your mind about it?


Aradhna:

Yeah. So first of all, it's a big privilege to work with and learn alongside leaders like Heather, you, and to me leadership is a verb, not a noun. Titles don't make leaders. It's what they do that makes them leaders and yeah, in terms of they'd be here a lot of talk about leadership these days, right? I mean, whenever there is a phenomenally great leader on the scene or a phenomenally not so great leader on the scene there, there's a lot of fodder for us leadership geeks. But what has been on my mind lately is what the parallels between leadership theory and cities.


Bridget:

Okay. So correct me if I'm wrong, but are you referring to leaders in the city, city leaders?


Aradhna:

No, not quite that. What I mean is so, so cities are being thrust into this position of leadership, right? I mean they are, they are the centers for innovation, sometimes social problem solution and those are leadership responsibilities. So it's imperative that cities get savvy very quickly about sustainable leadership behaviors so that they can help the globe navigate the, the biggest population shift in world history.


Bridget:

Okay, so let's dive in. Can you tell me more about that?


Aradhna:

Okay, so the city's occupied 2.6% of the Earth's crust, but 50% of the world population and UN estimates that by 2050 there will be about 9.6 billion people on the planet. And 66% of them would be living in cities, which means imagine like about 6.5 billion people living in cities. So we think cities matter now they're going to matter even more in the future.


Bridget:

Great. So if cities are set up to be our laboratories for leadership, and probably one of the largest ways to do a lot of good for a lot of people, what are the leadership principles that every city needs to know?


Aradhna:

The first one is that the best leaders on mindful leaders, not reactive, and there's some research in neuroscience that is being extrapolated into the practice of leadership. Basically, a mindful leader is one who is looking at not just the physical and and and material wellbeing of herself, but also off the emotional and social wellbeing and mental wellbeing of herself and her team and the organization she might be leading. So that's why Google is teaching meditation inside and out. Wall Street executives are now getting into mindfulness and meditation. Nevermind the fact that Indian yogis have been practicing this for like a couple of centuries, but now that Google and Wall Street is doing it, it must be hip. It must be legit.


So never mind bad, but, but what do I mean by by cities being mindful. I, you know, we have not saying that we should all live here are all city people are across the globe should leave here and go and meditate and market square. That may not be a bad idea, but, but if what I mean by cities being mindful is that they have to stop being reactive. They have to go deep, look at their authentic selves and see that if they're growing or the growing in a healthy manner. Because if they're growing, and sometimes cities judge ourselves by numbers and others judge us by numbers, like other cities may judge just by numbers. But if we are growing by displacing those people who have lived in those cities for a long time, in the long run, it's going to cause grief, not just for those people in their families but also for cities. Yeah. So let us be mindful that we are as as Vr on that cusp of greatness, all of those kinds of cities, including our wonderful city of Pittsburgh, that we are being intentional about the city we are creating so that this moment of becoming promising doesn't also become the moment of our downfall. It's, it's extremely important. There is a a literary critic who said the whom Gods would destroy, they first called promising cities on the word of becoming promising watch it. Don't get so full of yourself. Don't buy into your own hype.


Bridget:

Okay. So you had mentioned four principles and the first principle is the city needs to be mindful. What’s next?


Aradhna:

A city needs to be humble, humility. And maybe that's the way I was raised. I believe a lot in humility, but the, the connection between leadership and humility is as old as time there is to go back to that, right. Gods would destroy if you're not humble, right. So, so we, we need to make sure that, that we are reminding ourselves of all aspects of, of how do we remain humble.


Bridget

I think earlier we had been talking, there's some great examples in history. I know more contemporary with Enron but also throughout history. Any of those points you could maybe speak to.


Aradhna:

Yeah. The, yeah. Thank you for that. The people we were talking about, the, the historical examples of like Ken Lay, you know, was that the other one that we were talking about? There are enough examples of that lack of humility in the business world. The in the case of Ken Lay as we were talking about can live with Enron just before the whole downfall of Enron, he's supposed to have sent an email which said something like we are the best example of American organization in the business world today or something like that. And then of course you, but you know this, this lack of humility is not just restricted to American business people. If you can go back all the way to ancient China 260 BC, which is the example that I think you found fascinating, which is that in the battle of Shang paying this, the warrior prints Zau quo is leading this army of about a half a million soldiers is about to win this battle and but wants to deliver the last crushing bro Low. So he rushes ahead, leaves a supply train behind. And so instead of winning the war against this much smaller army, he is in prison beheaded within 46 days, his army off the remaining army of about 400,000 people. Soldiers is left alone and starving and conquered and executed. All because of the ego of one man cities. Be sure not to let that kind of Hubris take you over.


Bridget:

Aren’t we told that often that we need to be confident and celebrate our successes, but can celebration go too far? If you're talking about humility, what can a city do to become humble?


Aradhna:

Okay, so that actually is a great segue into my third point. What tell the whole story, right? I mean in, in leadership we say that leadership, it's about balance that that leadership stories that speak only of successes are incomplete. So cities need to tell the full story and what is that balance look like in, in leadership. So, so at the individual level, I have been privileged to be a part blessed to be a part of many successes and both personally, individually and, and through my organization work. But there've been so many failures, you know, at the individual level, at the personal level, my marriage did not last beyond 20 years. There's a lot of pain. I've applied for jobs that I haven't gotten. I have hired and fired the wrong people. I have taken by organization into endeavors that will not that great.


And so they were there. There are lots of things like that that others would consider failures and that I consider failures and I've got to remember them and learn from them. But when you are kind enough to invite me to your ted stage or, or we get an award or something, we don't talk about that we, so it's my responsibility to remember to stay humble, to stay real, to have that balance at the city level. So Singapore, it's, it's often hailed as an urban paradise and it really is good. I was, I was just there a few weeks ago visiting my son and it's pretty and pristine and lots of trees and, and no crime and most millionaires in the world, but 10 to 14% of Singaporeans have trouble accessing their basic needs. Hunger is a real thing. Real have real problems. You can't wish them away and you know, you kind of focus on them as the, as the urbanist Liz Agu said at this recent [inaudible] conference that was held in Pittsburgh, she said something about leadership that I'm going to take a little bit of a poetic license with, and she said, leaders, I add cities, leaders and cities need to be willing to listen to the pain, create space for grieving and commit to healing.


You've got to have that balance. You've got to be cognizant, you've got to own up to your challenges. A good leader is honest about her challenges and so our good cities, yes.


Bridget:

Okay, so if we buy the argument that nothing's perfect and there's always room for improvement, what's next? How do we get there? Whether as an individual or a city,


Aradhna:

I would say, let's, let's go back to that. Okay. Let's go back to the fourth principle and in my head. All right, so that's a, that's a beautiful segue into the fourth principle is how do we get there? That's about openness. And there is a lot of research in the business world about the, you know, the, the, the, the diverse talent on teams makes the teams better organizations, better corporate boardrooms, veteran, so on and so forth. So we'll not belabor that point, but the, at the geographical unit level, if we, you know, a lot has been studied about rise and fall of civilizations. So let's look at China. They've got to pick on China today. I don't know why, but we are going to pick on China today. So, so China scholars say that the, the, the most glorious days of China, but also its most open days when medieval Europe was racked with the purchase of Muslims and Jews because basically anyone who was challenging the Christian Orthodoxy was being, you know, poached out China was opening its imperial code.


Aradhna:

Ships were coming in from, from Central Asia, trade was flourishing, cultural exchanges were happening. That's how Buddhism got into China because of that cultural exchange and all of that. And the, the other cultures also benefited from that, from that reverse exchange. But not only that, innovation was at it speak. The navigational compass was created, then the paper currency was created in China at that time, gun powder was created then, but then same job roughly, right. And 14th century imperial rulers decided that they wanted to go her tail. Other influences on China, they wanted to protect it. And so they shut down the borders. The are the ships that had gone. They called them back and they got them up for scrap. Whereas China had been flourishing in the open days. China started to fall behind and at the same time that the Spanish and the Portuguese sailors were going, you know, sailing the seas and industrial and scientific revolution rippled through Europe. China was crippled. So what's the message for cities? Huge. Being welcoming and inclusive is hugely important. And as we sit here in this beautiful city of bridges, I want to say to cities, build bridges to ideas and people not wallet.


Bridget:

That's beautiful. So Aradhna, that's very interesting that you took us through the framework of what a city needs to do it. Make sure I got this: mindful, humble, balanced and open. But as we look around the world today, it doesn't seem like those are the sort of leaders who are dominant right now.


Aradhna:

Very interesting observation, wouldn't have occurred to me. So you know the, here's the thing, the in, in the short run, destructive behaviors can be successful sometimes even more than the healthy ones, but in the short run. But if we are talking about cities as leaders sit to cities leading the globe through that population, major population shift that's going to happen. Then they have to be looking at the principles of leadership, which are the sustainable principles of leadership or leadership sustainability. And that's why I point to those four, you know, be the mindful city. Don't buy into your own hype. Tell the whole story. The story of just the song boots is just as incomplete as just the hearing. Just the stories of the crews. So tell the whole story. Build bridges, not walls.


Bridget:

So one final question for you are leaving here and we learn from the best of leadership. What do we gain as a society?


Aradhna:

What does the society gain if the cities adopt? The best of leadership principals, a more just society, a more inclusive society, a more equitable world, and a more caring and generous globe. So that, you know, we, we sit here and talk about the China and scholars and history and all of that so that if we follow of cities, lead and follow these principles, my hope would be the 2000 years from now. Yeah. People, scholars, machines, computers. I'm looking back at this or some combination of humans and machines are looking back at this era and saying they got it that century. Got It.

That's, that's the century. That's the world I want to live in. So thank you for your insight and thank you for all that you do. Ok, let's go create that world. Aradhna is the President and CEO of Leadership Pittsburgh Inc. (LPI), a premiere resource for community leadership identification, connection and development in Southwestern Pennsylvania.

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