Architects define leadership for a changing profession

Attendees of the AIA Leadership Institute 2017

Attendees of the AIA Leadership Institute 2017

What does it mean to lead? At AIA's Leadership Institute, architects received a crash course

While the term leadership seems straightforward, each leader defines it differently—and those definitions are often highly personal.

"When I think about leadership, I think about starting with yourself. Be the example of what you want to see," said Nooni Reatig, AIA, at the AIA's recent Leadership Institute, an annual conference hosted by AIA's Center for Civic Leadership. While starting with yourself is crucial, it is evident that true leaders keep others at the center. Collaborating, building relationships, and leveraging networks are foundational elements of strong leadership in architecture and any other field, for that matter.

Process over product

Architects could easily believe that being a leader in the field means winning design awards or garnering publicity, but as architecture has shifted to be more collaborative, practitioners require a more realistic form of leadership in day-to-day work. The master-builder legacy and ownership models within the profession sometimes lay out a practical path to leadership positions, but rising through the ranks and taking on financial responsibility do not necessarily equate to effective leadership.

"When people reach that point as a senior leader in their firm, it doesn't mean that they have addressed the people management issues of practice management, which I think is a really important part of leadership in practice," said Je'Nen Chastain, Assoc. AIA, the primary organizer behind the Leadership Institute. "We spend so much time thinking about the design and technical components of putting buildings together that oftentimes, the last thing we think about is the people." Chastain believes that building consensus and capitalizing on individual strengths within a team can best bring a project vision to life.

Firm leaders need to delicately balance making a name for their firm through great design work and providing opportunities for growth and success among their employees.

Design and practice leadership need to go hand in hand, according to Vaki Mawema, a project architect and lifestyle sector leader at Gensler: "Great business leadership is great design leadership," he stated. Mawema is adamant that the best firm leaders "create" things to support others, such as infrastructure and positive working environments. Creating opportunities, discourses, and systems is critical to being a successful leader in practice.

Live and lead actively

Some leaders define their roles in terms of orchestrating change. To Chastain, leadership means "learning how to apply your voice in an authentic way to create change in the world." She cites that mission as a driving force behind the Leadership Institute's inception. "It's about helping members discover their leadership potential in the careers, but also taking it a step further to become leaders as architects in their communities," she said about the event.

Architects who pursue leadership opportunities in public service—known as citizen architects—work to solve problems at the local, state, and national levels. In an address to conference attendees, 2016 Whitney M. Young Jr. Award recipient R. Steven Lewis, FAIA, shared key attributes of civic leaders before hosting a panel about revitalization in Detroit and receiving a citation for his work as a citizen architect. By staying informed of issues, advocating for higher living standards, creating sustainable environments, and engaging in civic activism, architects can lead by example, according to Lewis.

Leading by example requires focus, discipline, and a strong sense of purpose. "We don't get up thinking about ourselves as citizen architects, we just live that way," Lewis said.

"Conversations about leadership begin with an understanding of intention." - Keshika De Saram, Assoc. AIA

Don’t wait to get started

Leadership doesn't always require years of experience in the field. Emerging professionals have proven eager to lead, even as early as architecture school. "Students don't want to wait until they're licensed to begin making a difference," said Keshika De Saram, Assoc. AIA, national president of the American Institute of Architecture Students (AIAS). Young people in the profession are hungry for opportunities and have high hopes for their work as future architects. "Conversations about leadership begin with an understanding of intention," claimed De Saram. If educators and current leaders in the profession seek to recognize the changing needs of the incoming generation, leadership potential and the ability to create positive impact will grow for all.  

There are as many different routes to leadership as there are definitions, and organizational involvement is a way young people can refine their ability to lead early in their careers. Chastain, a former national AIAS president herself, has dedicated her spare time to growing the AIA Center for Civic Leadership and carving a unique path through service to the members of AIA. "When I started with the Center for Civic Leadership, I wanted to become a leader, but I wasn't able to flex that leadership muscle in my work," Chastain said. "Now I know that once I get licensed and understand how to work on architectural projects, I have the capability of being a really great leader in my career. When the time is right, I'll move into these different leadership opportunities more confidently."

Finding the right leadership fit takes time for any architect or design professional. Aspirations shift, passions grow, and sometimes it's hard to make the right choice. No matter what form leadership takes in your life, keep in mind the common denominator: people. Whether they be employees, community members, students, or fellow AIA members, your duty as a leader will be to give back to them.

Looking for more resources? Visit our Leadership Education page.

Kathleen M. O’Donnell is a writer/editor at AIA, specializing in career and professional development topics and Institute coverage.

Image credits

Attendees of the AIA Leadership Institute 2017

Scott Henrichsen Photography

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