The Geo-Jargon Guide to GIS Leadership

“Managing GIS”

A column from members of the Urban and Regional Information Systems Association

By Rachel Kornak, GISP, URISA’s Vanguard Cabinet

What does it mean to be a leader in the GIS profession? It depends on who you ask. There are many ways to lead. One can lead in a tangible manner by overseeing a company, a project, or a team. Such leaders typically have positions with “manager” or “director” in their job title. To become this type of leader, you need to achieve a particular set of milestones related to education and experience.

Thought leadership is a harder concept to define. My favorite descriptions of thought leaders: “individuals with the ability to aggregate followers around ideas to educate, influence, and inspire” (Jeanine Moss) and “the go-to person [who] journalists want to quote and companies want to hire” (Social Strand Media).

Thought leadership has more to do with attitude than the number of years of experience, making it much more accessible for individuals at the beginning of their careers. You can be a thought leader if you are a student or intern, an entry-level employee, or a seasoned professional. There will always be people both ahead of and behind you. The key is to learn how to inspire others no matter where you are on the career ladder.

My own role models range from professionals with decades of experience to students taking their first GIS class. They may seem different on the surface, but they have quite a bit in common. They have a vision for the future and passionately pursue it. They generously commit their time, energy, and resources. They actively participate in knowledge exchanges. They go the extra mile to both identify and fill in gaps. Lastly, they both challenge others to think big and empower them to follow through.

How You Can Get Started

The pathway to becoming a GIS thought leader is cyclical. At the beginning, you may not consider yourself a member of the GIS community. For example, you may describe yourself as an environmental scientist instead of a GIS professional. Our field is complex in that many GIS professionals apply their technical knowledge in fields like energy production or health care. Once you identify yourself as a member of the GIS community, you need to recognize that you have an obligation to contribute to it. Next, you need to educate yourself about the existing “infrastructure,” like major players, best practices, professional organizations, and professional development resources. Then you can apply your own talent and skills to fill in gaps. You complete the cycle by inspiring others who don’t currently participate to begin the cycle themselves.

The Geo-Jargon Guide

Here are some tips to approaching geo-jargon:

Easily rate your level of achievement and interest against GIS industry standards using the tools at
Easily rate your level of achievement and interest against GIS industry standards using the tools at

My contribution is, a grassroots effort to intersect, empower, and engage aspiring GIS professionals. The website provides links to professional development resources, tips to get connected, a platform for young and new professionals to share ideas, and tools to help you get started. The latest tool helps you assess your achievement and interests against the GISP Certification requirements; the Geospatial Technology Competency Model; and resumé, portfolio, and networking advice from experts in the field. It also helps you prioritize action items and create a follow-up plan. Like Esri’s ModelBuilder, you can create a visual plan that can be easily updated and shared with others. Create a vision for your future and track your progress. What will you contribute to the GIS community?

About the Author

Rachel Kornak is a certified GIS professional and has been a member of URISA’s Vanguard Cabinet since January 2011. She created Emerging GIS Leaders to help aspiring GIS professionals find a path to success. Kornak is the lead instructor of Environmental Applications of GIS, an elective in Penn State University’s online MGIS and GIS certificate programs.


Special thanks go to Joy Adams (AAG), Greg Babinski (URISA), Ryan Bowe (URISA Vanguard Cabinet), Betsy Breyer (Portland State), Phil Davis (GeoTech Center), David DiBiase (Esri), Carrie Drake (USGIF), James Fee (WeoGeo), Jean McKendry (AAG), Anthony Robinson (Penn State), and Carlos Silva (URISA Vanguard Cabinet) and to Rich Serby (GeoSearch).

For more information, contact Rachel Kornak, GISP.