The Thoughtful Leader

Collaborative Leadership and Bike Trails

Last weekend was beautiful and balmy in New England, so I decided to take a long meandering bike ride, exploring the myriad bike trails that connect the towns, villages and rural landscapes of the Connecticut River valley. As I pedaled through fields bursting with early spring sprouts of green, I realized that this lovely network of trails was the result of a many year collaborative leadership effort. Wayne Feiden, current Director of Northampton’s Office of Planning and Development, came to the valley more than 20 years ago, and at that time Northampton had 2.4 miles of bike trails that were not used very much. Growing up Wayne had always liked biking, and he developed a vision for an increase in city and regional bike trails that has grown incrementally over the years. Northampton now has $13,000,000 worth of bike trails that reach north to Leeds and connect with extended trails in Easthampton, Southampton, Hadley, and Amherst. Wayne bikes to work every day, as do many others in the region, and he gives two reasons for the expansion of the system – one, is the recreational opportunities it provides, and two, is the transformative opportunity the trails offer for how people travel.
Over the years Wayne and many others have had a shared vision of a greatly expanded bike trail system, and making this vision come to life has been a truly collaborative effort on their part, as they worked with many groups around the region including the conservation commission, members of the city council, and numerous citizens’ groups. There was strong enthusiasm and there was intense resistance. There was hot controversy and there was quiet cooperation. Wayne obtained grant money to pay for the trails, and enumerable citizens’ meetings were held to get eventual community buy-in.
Wayne told me that when he first became a planner 25 years ago, he heard that many planners were being fired – half of them for taking strong positions and the other half for taking weak or no positions on important planning issues. Wayne decided that if he were ever to be fired, he would want it to be for taking strong positions on issues he believed in, so he’s taken strong positions. He believed in the development of bike trails for Northampton, he articulated his beliefs, he collaborated, and he hasn’t yet been fired.
Wayne isn’t trained in systems-based leadership, but he took an “I” position, kept calmly connected with the various interested factions of the community, maintained a long-term vision in spite of the ups and downs of the project, and was an effective collaborator in making it happen. Systems-based leadership defines leadership as a relationship process, and that’s a pretty good description of the leadership that transformed the Northampton bike trail system. There is still a lot more to do, including expanding the bike lanes on city streets, but this project rides the crest of the green movement throughout the country, and it will thrive.
How is your long-term vision? How do you manage yourself when there is a lot of resistance to your vision? Is your leadership part of a relationship process? Does this story trigger new ideas for you as you think about your own leadership? I look forward to hearing your thoughts.
Katharine Gratwick Baker


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