✱ A Leader's Job - Launching Project Undercurrent / by Evan Troxel

Chris Luebkeman writing for the Boston Society of Architects At Issue (Fall 2013) magazine on having lunch with 20-year-olds that are working in his engineering firm Arup in a short article entitled Getting Out of Tomorrow's Way:

I get inspired by their thoughtful concern about the change they see around them, and I look forward with cautious optimism as they confront the mountain of challenges ahead. Pearl S. Buck said, “The young don’t know enough to be prudent and therefore they attempt the impossible — and achieve it, generation after generation.” We need to get out of their way so that our next generation can indeed do the impossible.

This kind of leadership is not common.

Fear

I've heard similar rumblings from many seasoned professionals and emerging architects in the industry - we are feeling that most of the people in charge today actively hide what they are doing. They don't commune with the office staff. They don't take ideas that the underlings come up with and put them into action. What do they know, anyway, right? So they work in deliberate secrecy, toiling away (or in some cases doing nothing) in closed-door offices or don't make appearances at the office at all. When they do come in, they immediately close their door to their private office behind them. They don't walk the floor. They do not ask questions. They are not interested in our lives or what we bring to the table typically, unless it is an efficiency. The offices of today seem to be all about that.

Maybe they do this because they don't want everyone to know how bad "it" really is. Maybe they don't want to share their victories, deciding to keep them personal so they can take all the credit. "Let's not get morale up too high too soon," they think. 

Or maybe they don't want to share their failings publicly. I sometimes think the real reason they do this so that if they do fail, no one knew what they were up to in the first place so they never actually look like a failure. "Let's not make everyone panic that the ship is sinking and we only have half the lifeboats we need," they murmur quietly to their cohorts in the board room.

We all know nothing good ever comes from failure, right?

But then we are reminded that this isn't the case at all. National Geographic's photo essay entitled Failure is an Option

History shows that without it, we’d be nowhere.

Short and sweet. 

The architecture office and the design studio needs to be a place where it is safe to fail. No one hits home runs all the time. I'm no sports aficionado, but I know we need to stop pretending like we are the memorable side of the remarkable Babe Ruth. The irony is that while people remember Ruth for his amazing single season home run record that he held for 34 years (!), he also struck out more times than any other player that same season. The takeaway here is that he wasn't afraid to strike out. In fact it has been proven time and time again that failure is the key to innovation.

Angel Maiers outlines 9 Essential Lessons for Changing the World and hammers home the need for us to embrace failure as one of the main character-building traits of leaders: 

Every student, teacher, mentor and speaker had the opportunity to tell their story. We listened to story after story of failure, of fear, of humility, of embarrassment, of projects gone wrong, of an idea not turning out as planned or desired. Yet, time after time, these so-called "failures" were in fact life-defining lessons, teachings that led to a transformative experience, a new life purpose and hard-earned success. It's only when we expose our darkest fears and our greatest mistakes that true growth occurs.

My experience

I used to work at Apple, and I had a great mentor there named Darren Armstrong. One day he told me that his only job was to figure out where I needed to go, figure out ways to help me get there, and then get out of the way. Of course he had more responsibilities than that, but his focus was his people; his focus was me. His interests were my interests. He was concerned with others' goals and dreams because that meant progress and most likely, innovation. We met every week to establish goals and track progress against them. Every. Week.

That was the first time I had heard that viewpoint, and it has now informed my perspective ever since. All credit goes to Darren. He's an amazing and inspiring friend. One of the reasons I'm putting this out there is because of his leadership. 

I know there are people like this in architecture too. I have the pleasure of working with some of them. It seems like it's not common however. Luckily the internet has made it easier for those of us that think this way to connect. 

How this applies to architecture's future

There is a disease rotting architecture from the inside-out where the so-called "leadership" is not focused on the next generation. They are completely preoccupied with their goals and dreams (probably because the same thing was modeled to them when they were working their way up the ranks) and aren't looking to find out where their replacements can take the profession in the future. This is going to kill the architectural profession. Obviously I preface that as a generalization, but it's a large contingent of these kinds of people within the industry. It's not a small problem, and I'm not the only one who sees it this way.

June R. Jewell:

Part of running a successful and profitable firm is strategically planning for it’s future growth. Without a transition plan to move the firm ownership into the hands of younger managers and leaders, an aging middle age owner may one day find that he or she is not able to get the full value that they had planned to take out of their firm at retirement.

The architectural industry is dominated by "tradition" and a get-off-my-lawn mentality. It continues to do things how they've always been done from the way "interns" are "employed" and treated to the way the many firms are run. Because let's be honest, what is their motivation to change? Problems that finally make their way to the surface after they retire are not problems they are concerned with today, and change is a long, difficult road. It takes a dedicated leader with much foresight and desire to skate to where the puck is going to be.

It's time we take it on ourselves because I don't believe the current leadership will ever let go (until it's too late) and start allowing the unmistakably motivated, passionate people doing the work to make more of the decisions about the future of the industry. This takes real leadership, and many people don't think we have the leaders we need. Even if we were to sit, wait and see what solutions come, we would have to accept the changes handed down to us. We aren't willing to do that because we're not part of their conversations.

This has nothing to do with age. This is a mindset. It's either being viewed as an "it's not broken" thing, the established are in denial, or they just don't care. There are plenty of men and women well into their professional careers in architecture that have an innovative attitude and see lots of room for improvement.

I'm not looking to start a fight. I'm looking to start fresh, leave things how they are in the dust and forge our own road. A road that we passionately design the hell out of. I'm offering you the keys to the car. Don't you want to take it for a spin? Or are you just going to sit in the driveway?

UNDERCURRENT logo.png

Announcing Project Undercurrent: A grassroots movement to redesign the architectural profession

I get pretty fired up when I think about this stuff because I know we can do better. Leaders need to take care of, integrate and help their people succeed. They also need to get out of their way. We are the future of the profession, and the current problems are now our problems. We have to own them.

As I said in my Architectural Independence Day article, I'm up for the challenge of designing it the way I want my future to be. I do not want to wait around and be forced to accept the old guard's solutions to problems they don't seem interested in or capable of solving. Make no mistake there are some insanely smart people out there. I want to get them on my team though - not wasting their time continuing on with the status quo. This will be hard work, and I know that there is only one place I can start.

"If you want it to happen, you must make it happen. If you let it happen, you won't like what happened." — Dale Adams 

I'm choosing myself. I'm picking me. It's time we start a movement and make our own way. Why else are we here? We have it all - the knowledge, the desire, the opportunities and the connections. This is more than we have ever had before. We are at our best not when we consume or spectate. We are at our best when we create and innovate. 

Will you pick yourself? There's room for everyone. 

You have a choice. You could sit around and watch more TV, or you can join with other like-minded individuals and (re)create something that is inclusive, genuine, built to last, takes care of its family, and changes the industry for success for all. There are trails to be blazed and mountains to climb.

If you're interested in joining me and going along for the ride, add your name to the Project Undercurrent list. You'll be the first to know what's going on.

Right now, we are just getting started. We are building a new foundation, and it needs a lot of thought and planning. I have some good ideas, but I need your ideas too. Together we can make some great ideas and unapologetically jettison the past. The future is bright!

As Umair Haque so eloquently stated at the end of his jaw-droppingly awesome piece on leadership at the Harvard Business Review blog:

We need a new generation of leaders. And we need it now.

Indeed. I would love your help and participation. Are you in?

 

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