What Architects Can Bring to the Politics of Civic Engagement

February 23, 2005 · by Richard Swett, FAIA

Architects are masters at creating order out of chaos. However, the personal and professional skills required to weave this tapestry are rarely discussed in the books about architects.

Continued from Four Philosophical Cornerstones of the Architecture of Trust

Architects are masters at creating order out of chaos. Protection from the elements, security from enemies, community for living, and solitude for reflection are requisite provisions that the architect must provide to society through the simultaneous exercise of superior craft and professional service. However, the personal and professional skills required to weave this tapestry are rarely discussed in the books about architects.

Architects are generally defined by the design of their buildings, both built and unbuilt. The situations of social and political life that provide architecture with its business and integrate its functionality into the fabric of modern society are viewed through the inverted lens of aesthetics, reducing the totality of every architect's work to a separate colored thread pulled from the much larger tapestry of history. The time has come to tell other kinds of stories about architects, not just because the profession of architecture needs to hear them, which it does, but because they serve an allegorical purpose in our assessment of the nature of leadership.

To me, leadership denotes an act by an individual to provide direction to a community through the use of skills and attributes that not only reinforce the community itself but also engage its participation and allow it to take ownership of both the process and the decisions that the process produces. In times of peace, this can be a very inclusive process that touches many, if not all, the lives in the community. In times of peril, this process must draw upon the trust developed through the relationships formed by working together toward a common goal during peaceful times.

As well, the scale of the community affects the way leadership is employed. Small communities have an intimacy that allows their leaders to share more of the responsibilities with constituents. Larger communities make that delegation more difficult. But in all instances, trust is the foundation on which productive, positive leadership is built. Trust is vested in the ability of leaders to fairly determine what is best for the whole community and to prepare it for the future, regardless of whether those events are good or bad. This trust is based on a belief that members of the community have a say in their governing processes and a relationship of mutual respect with the person(s) leading them. The goal of reaching a consensus may seem more difficult to achieve in highly heterogeneous communities than it is in less diverse, more homogeneous communities--but it is equally important in both.

Ronald Heifetz, in his book Leadership without Easy Answers[6], describes the traits of leaders a little differently from those of Robert K. Greenleaf 's model of servant-leadership. Heifetz says leaders possess the following attributes:

  • Leaders get out on the balcony. They step back, observe the fray, and interpret the organizational dynamics in real time.
  • Leaders know how to listen musically as well as analytically.
  • Leaders assemble confidants and allies for emotional support, as sources of information, and to draw fire on their behalf.
  • Leaders inspire others by identifying where people find meaning and by finding connections between specific tasks and organizational purpose.
  • Leaders demonstrate courage and stamina--an ability both to generate heat and take the heat.
  • Leaders demonstrate compassion and empathy. They respect the pains of change and the coping mechanisms that people use.
  • Leaders treat ripe and unripe issues differently--and, all else being equal, they tackle ripe issues first.
  • Leaders manage the timing of distress. They disturb people only when they have the time and the credibility to spend on dealing with the consequences.
  • Leaders seek opportunities for catharsis and spiritual renewal. Given the leadership qualities identified by Greenleaf and Heifetz, it seems that many of the individuals proclaimed as today's leaders do not adequately fit either model very well.

    We have become convinced that only those who know how to divide and conquer can assume the mantle of leadership; however, it is time to recognize that there are those among us who possess the skills to untangle and master the jumbled mass of vital information, who can formulate priorities and strategies, and who have the capacities to mitigate the ensuing conflicts associated with shared goals and responsibilities.

    Viable solutions to big problems do not have to be either/or equations. Solutions can be integrated and balanced from the best aspects of both sides of the equation, achieving a better all-round result. The ability to recognize the truth of the facts and the order contained within them and from that recognition have the ability to develop a holistic solution that is the sum, rather than the division, of all its distinct parts now seems to be a missing faculty in public life. (continued on next page)

    Click for Next Page: Integration of the Professional Polymath: Architect / Artist / Technician / Builder / Manager

    About the Book

    This article is excerpted from chapter 1 of the book Leadership by Design: Creating an Architecture of Trust by Ambassador Richard Swett, FAIA.
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    Leadership By Design

    This article is excerpted from chapter 1 of Leadership by Design: Creating an Architecture of Trust.

    Ambassador Richard Swett's groundbreaking new book investigates the unique civic leadership strengths of the architecture profession. Drawing upon the compelling history of the profession, both past and present, as well as from his own singular experience as the only architect to serve in Congress during the 20th century, Swett has produced an insightful volume that is both inspiring and instructive. He shares Mark Twain's view that "if the only tool you have is a hammer, after a while every problem begins to look like a nail." Leadership by Design is an eloquent plea to architects, leaders and citizens alike to expand the tool chest as we seek new leadership to design new solutions for the complex challenges facing our nation and the world.

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