Cities can learn from leadership theory

Urban centers are increasingly home for the majority of the Earth’s population. In fact, cities are a mere 2 percent of the world’s geography, but home to 50 percent of the world population, according to United Nations’ estimates. Furthermore, city population is expected to balloon to 66 percent by the year 2050. Cities matter now, yet they will matter even more in the not-so-distant future.

It’s important to understand the parallels between cities and leadership. Cities are centers for innovation and social problem solving. The same may be said for leaders and leadership.

The key is to understand and implement appropriate principles and behaviors in both of these arenas that are sustainable and will help to navigate the huge population shift over the coming decades. Four core principles determine success in this regard:

1. Mindfulness — The very best leaders are mindful, not reactive. They pay close attention to the emotional and social well-being of themselves and their team, not just the physical and material.

Google and Wall Street recently adopted what many Indian and Asian cultures have known for thousands of years: meditation is a gateway to mindfulness. It helps promote intentionality in creating cities, companies, personal development, etc. This is growth in a healthy manner, not at the expense of others.

2. Humility — Strong leaders don’t buy into their own hype. They understand that hubris is a quick path to downfall. Ego and self-interest have no role to play in leadership that is true and correct.

3. Balance — Celebrate success, but also tell the whole story. Failures are important learning opportunities. Leaders who know this stay real, balanced and humble. Real cities have real problems. Therefore, leaders and cities must be willing to listen to the pain, create space for grieving and commit to healing. Such a balanced approach leaves room to honestly own up to challenges. There is no one so perfect that there is no room for improvement.

4. Openness — We have long known that there is a direct correlation between diversity and the health of a company, community or nation. But, add to this the willingness to embrace cultural openness. This philosophy and approach allow for a healthy exchange that affords peak innovation and promotes a flourishing society and economy. Being welcoming and inclusive is hugely important to achieving this. Healthy cities and leaders build bridges, not walls.

While some destructive behaviors can be successful in the short run, it is only through wholeheartedly embracing and practicing these principles that cities and leaders promote healthy communities and organizations in a sustainable manner. In this way, society as a whole is just, inclusive, equitable, caring and generous for all of its citizenry.

If leaders and cities adhere to these principles, then many decades from now, when the population of cities reaches many more billions of residents, our descendants will know that today’s leaders understood the impact of their actions and led for the benefit of the future.

This talk was given at a TEDxPittsburgh event using the TED conference format, but independently organized by a local community.


Aradhna M. Oliphant is president and CEO of Leadership Pittsburgh Inc. LPI strengthens regional leadership by connecting current and emerging leaders and high-potential veterans with each other and with people and issues that shape communities. Under her leadership, demand for LPI programs has grown exponentially. A graduate of LPI, Aradhna is deeply committed to the region including through service on boards and commissions. She is invited frequently to speak and write on leadership.