Neighborhood change doesn’t happen without ruffling feathers. But as we all know, pushing people to do things a little differently than they might have done before is not an easy task. Whether it’s the store owner who needs to start sprucing up his window display or tweaking his merchandise mix or the property owners who needs to invest in a facade improvement. Getting people to do things differently requires leadership – true leadership – the kind that inspires people – not the kind dictated to them, but rather a slight cajoling at a pace they can manage.

Baby steps are necessary
Sometimes, getting people to do something they haven’t done before means setting up opportunities to test the waters. This means taking baby steps to get them to see that a new concept and idea that may seem foreign at first is in fact a good solution to a vexing problem. Let me give you an example.

We recently completed the Corridors of Retail Excellence Program (CORE) with LISC MetroEdge and PPND in Mount Washington, a neighborhood in Pittsburgh. The assessment and recommended investment was fairly simple. Address a vexing challenge (the fact that 1.5 million visitors were taking in the famous view of Pittsburgh but were simply not walking down the street to patronize local businesses) with a solution that our team had seen work very well in other communities. Place hanging blade signs that protrude from the building and offer pedestrians visual cues to the fact that there are businesses down the street. The result? Businesses have reported a 30% increase in foot traffic since the signage was installed. Mount Washington CDC Executive Director Jason Kambitsis told us at a recent CORE wrap-up meeting that other businesses are now stepping up and asking for similar signage – and offering to pay for it. These are the same businesses who initially resisted participation. The success of this effort might also pave the way for a citywide effort to support signage improvements.

The importance of testing new ideas and concepts
One of my favorite books is “The Practice of Adaptive Leadership”, by leadership gurus Ronald Heifetz, Marty Linsky and Alexander Grashow. In it, the authors push people to think about leadership as the practice of “stepping into the unknown and stirring things up.” I like that concept. And it speaks to the challenges that commercial district leaders face. How many times have you encountered a naysayer who looks at you and says “we tried that 15 years ago” as a way to shut down a conversation? I certainly have. But the market conditions, the stakeholders, the surrounding neighborhood made that situation so different than the one we find ourselves in now.  To quote from “The Practice of Adapative Leadership”

“Leadership is an improvisational art. There is no recipe…The experimental mind-set opens up the possibility of running several initiatives at the same time to discover which approaches work best. Experiments involve testing hypotheses, looking for contrary data, and making midcourse corrections as you generate new knowledge.”

I try to compel my clients to think about their work in the same way. Getting better at what you do, affecting neighborhood change, is sometimes uncomfortable for those leading the effort as well. True leaders need to “expand their bandwidth”, which basically means trying new ideas that move you outside of your comfort zone. I actually have a magnet on my apartment door that I look at every day as I leave my home, and it says “Life begins at the edge of your comfort zone.” Easy enough to say, right? But here is your challenge, which comes with a risk. It is precisely when you push yourself to do new things that your incompetence may be put on display. And that is sometimes scary for people, especially for those who define themselves as “leaders”. Aren’t leaders confident, successful people who always get things right? I might say just the opposite, a true leader is marked by their ability to take risks and inspire, which may mean approaching a project and acknowledging that it might not work. But then it also means trying something new and remaining innovative and experimental until something does work. And you know what? It will.

I say all this to underscore the importance of leadership in managing and improving commercial districts. People sometimes think that tactics and best practices are the most important thing for successful commercial district practitioners to learn about (and this is basically the philosophy that under-girds most  professional development training programs). But for every wonderful best practice and tactic in our practitioner’s tool box, there is a little something intangible called leadership that actually makes the difference.

Author Larisa Ortiz is Principal of Larisa Ortiz Associates.