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Quick Take: Benoy Jacob on Leadership in 2017

Forget national politics — the director of UNLV's new urban leadership program says those working at the city level will be affecting the most change in the coming decade.

Business and Community  |  Jan 19, 2017  |  By Afsha Bawany
Benoy Jacob

Benoy Jacob, urban leadership program director. (R. Marsh Starks/UNLV Photo Services)

Benoy Jacob went to college focused on basketball. He stumbled upon his future career when he asked his counselor for classes that would fit around his team schedule at Concordia University in Montreal. When he realized he wasn’t going to make it much farther with basketball, Jacob took the advice of his counselor and focused on his interest in cities.  He is now director of the new master of urban leadership program at the UNLV School of Public Policy and Leadership. The program’s first cohort begins this semester and is a mix of entry to mid-level managers.

Before joining UNLV, Jacob worked in the private and public sectors as a city planner. He studies the growth and governance of cities, what makes communities stronger and leadership strategies. We talked to Jacob about why cities are at the forefront of policy change, why leaders aren’t always found at the top, and why failure is an option.

We often think change leaders are found at the top but you argue the opposite.

The archetypal leader is a hierarchical, top-down, very heavy-handed person whose strength of personality, come hell or high waters, can push things along and make sure people get things done. That’s not the leadership model of today or the leadership model I would aspire to.

Leadership manifests itself in different ways. You have these transformative leaders — the big thinkers and visionaries who see the world in a whole new way. They are charismatic leaders.

There’s also the leader who’s facilitating the day to day, making sure fires are put out, that fires aren’t emerging, and that the work place environment is productive and exciting for people.

In our urban leadership program, we want to develop leaders who have a wide range of characteristics and skills and also help them unlock new talents.

Leadership is listening more than talking or dictating. You have to hear where people are coming from and the challenges they are facing. Leaders empower people, which requires trust in people and a leader who is not going to feel challenged to be right all the time.

At the end of the day, the salient skill is finding the bridge between different views and ideas and being able to bring people together to bring the issue forward. That’s something we, in our urban leadership program, want to develop and encourage in people.

We’re in culture that tells us failure is not acceptable.

Making a change in the world isn’t a linear path forward; there will be stumbles. Leaders who embrace failure learn (that leadership is) not about being right all the time; it’s about learning how to move forward. They must create an environment where it is safe for people to fail. Failure is a step toward progress.

I largely viewed myself as a failed basketball player but a lot of my leadership lessons come from my experiences playing sports. I’ve actually spent a lot of time observing the coaches and teams that I thought were successful. What was consistent with those teams was they enjoyed playing with each other, they had fun, they did respect one another. You can have two teams of equal skill sets, but the one that is characterized by those positive things tended to be better. That tended to emanate from a positive general manager or coach.

What makes a winning team?

My early experience with teams actually helped buttress my interest in cities. What I loved about my teams were that they were comprised of nice people, frankly. I wouldn’t have the same view of team or basketball and cities if I had ended up on teams where there’s infighting and egos.

That being said, there are going to be times of friction, contention, and even yelling. There’s different types of yelling – there is a yelling because you’re angry and frustrated, and yelling because you sincerely care about something and you can tell the difference in people. But when you step away, there’s an understanding that it’s all OK and “We were trying to figure something out, and it’ll be OK next time.” One of the things we need to recognize is that those contentious discussions are good and necessary so long as it comes from a place of sincerely wanting to make a change as opposed to sincerely wanting to attack someone or hurt someone.

That’s where your research on social cohesion comes in …

I research social cohesion — how communities get along and how that matters for the growth and governance of cities. The underlying hypothesis is that when you have communities of people who trust each other, speak to each other, and engage with each other, you will have better cities. You will have higher orders of economic growth and cities that are more resilient to economic and natural disasters.

How can aspiring urban leaders foster that?

There’s some evidence that public policy can help create some of this. You can do some of that through urban design and you can create physical environments that are more conducive to people engaging with each other. You can create and facilitate events that allow for positive engagement with one another other. You can have policies that limit economic inequity and that leads to greater levels of social cohesion. If social cohesion matters for better cities, then the question is “What public policies facilitate social cohesion?” That’s how those relationships play out in cities.

What role do cities play in developing policy?

For the first time in history of the country, more than 50 percent of the population lives in an urban environment. Cities are taking on leadership roles in public policy and cities are trying to shape the human condition. People are looking to mayors and local figureheads and that wasn’t always the case. Whether it’s the issue of civil unions or gun control, you could say cities found their hands tied and realized they couldn’t wait for the federal government, and they are being proactive.

Cities are shaping immigration policy, social policy, homeland security.  They are, in some instances, taking on the federal government and challenging states. They are pushing and shaping policy more broadly.

They need new type of urban leader – not just someone whose worried about efficiency and administration — to take on big policy issues.

Why is community building part the urban leadership program?

Alexis de Tocqueville was captivated by town hall meetings in New England. That’s where he believed democracy worked best. People would pursue self interest that was respected and positive and ultimately achieved a common good. This is when I think about cohesion, teams and community.

We lost the interaction with community. So much was top down. If you can find ways to bring individual interests together and across spectrums, then we have a vehicle for positive change.

I love neighborhoods and cities because it’s where democracy, leadership, and discourse is most fruitful.

But not all of the change will come from the urban city. You argue rural communities have been left behind.

The great urban and rural divide is not new. Rural areas have felt left behind. Rural communities often subsidize urban growth. Rural communities suffered in downtimes. And urban leaders have deliberately ignored them.

An important part of urban leadership is that it is not inward looking – rather, it’s outward looking.  The responsibility for the next generation of urban leaders is to focus on building bridges between urban and rural communities. This is how regions are going to grow, become sustainable, and equitable. Rural communities have to be partners in this strategy.

What are some tips for people who aren’t at the top management level but want to make a difference?

Try not to think of the gigantic change that needs to be made. Focus on finding the areas that, with a little bit of effort, you can fit in your day to do positive things.

We fill stuck when we think it’s too big a problem to tackle. Make the problem small enough to make it manageable. Very often we are sort of worried that we are not doing enough — the small act is not enough to make change — but it is. That change can work its way outward in particular communities and cities.