There is an old Chinese quote about leadership that came to mind the other day:

To lead people, walk beside them… As for the best leaders, the people do not notice their existence… When the best leader’s work is done the people say, ‘We did it ourselves!’

-Lao Tsu

Leadership is not an individual endeavor, but it is how we tend to view it- 0ne lone individual who forges ahead and affects change. A quick glance through history reveals many such examples of individuals who inspired whole movements, people like Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, and Mother Theresa.

But the reality is that change and progress on a communal level can only happen if the leaders have the support, commitment, ownership, and enthusiasm of the people they are leading. Gaining that kind of devotion usually requires that leadership is working for the greater good of the organisation or community. Few people will passionately follow someone who is focused solely on his or her own goals.

Why Leadership is a Challenge in the World of Architecture and Design

In an ideal world, the biggest names in architecture and design would be embracing this path to leadership. They would be champions for the greater good, blending artistic expression with a real dedication to the needs of their end users. Employees at these firms would have not only a sense of ownership, but a shared commitment to working with clients and the community at large and to designing functional, athletically pleasing spaces that both blend in and enhance the environment.

But, we have yet to reach that ideal in practice. Architecture and design is one of the few industries that, for better or worse, awards celebrity status to it’s star performers. It almost venerates and feeds the self-centred attitude that many so-called starchitects have to the extant that in some select markets an architect’s name alone can supersede practicality and push budgetary concerns aside. There are numerous examples of clients who chose to follow the artistic whims of a starchitect and his or her team at the expense of the greater community. Many of these same architecture studios and firms also struggle with leadership development, employee satisfaction and engagement, as well as customer outreach and communication.

Building a Leadership Community

Regardless, some firms are successfully building an engaged and loyal community around their core goals and vision. So, what are they doing differently? Where ever this is happening, there are usually the following five qualities:

  1. They hire the right people. These firms are very clear about what they are and where they are headed. They know who they are looking for now and what they want these employees to look like in the future
  2. They emphasize continuing education and career development. These firms realize that a defined career path encouraging leadership development, continuing education, new experiences, and mental agility, are the best employee perks.
  3. Employees have access to mentoring or coaching. No person is an island. People perform better when they are rooted in a community empowered to counsel, challenge, and hold them accountable.
  4. They support a collaborative work environment. There is a working system of feedback, communication, and a healthy exchange of ideas.
  5. They extend ownership. Every member of the firm has some level of ownership in the firm itself- whether it’s equity participation or the ability to affect the direction the firm takes.

In short, the firms that are looking for ways to encourage their employees to give more and stay around longer should first consider how well leadership goals are aligned with employee goals. When a firm is only focused on the endeavors of the lone leaders at the top, then employees may instinctively step away, taking their passion and commitment with them.