Ambassador Richard Swett investigates the unique civic leadership strengths of the architecture profession. From the book *Leadership By Design: Creating an Architecture of Trust*, Part 1: Architects as Leaders in Civic Society.

Ours is a very complex world that requires a tremendous amount of personal energy on a daily basis. Families depend on two wage earners or, often, only a single parent working to make ends meet. Keeping up with the changes at work, giving one’s children the feeling that mom and/or dad are aware of the changes in their lives, participating in local community life, and following current events at home and abroad can be an incredibly daunting set of tasks. At the end of every day there is little energy left after all the multitasking. It is no wonder that so many people choose to drop the ball on one or more of these activities, because there simply is not enough time to do it all properly. Add to this already exhausting scenario the forces that act upon anyone who chooses to enter the public arena, and you can begin to understand why fewer and fewer people are participating in the civic processes of government, at all levels.

The decline in the public’s participation in the electoral process is exacerbated by the antagonistic atmosphere that seems to permeate all aspects of public debate. Political campaigns are lubricated with special interest monies, generating information aimed at moving the electorate with a stifling abundance of tasteless, often brainless advertising. Most people are aware that the messages presented in the ads are, at best, jingoistic oversimplifications, if not outright misrepresentations or falsehoods.[4]

Issues have become so overly (and intentionally) simplified that there is no longer any real attempt at nuance or depth of meaning. Every issue is reduced to a cartoonish black-or-white scenario. The introduction of elegant, fully drawn solutions is nearly impossible.

Special-interest groups must share the blame with our political parties for this situation. The purpose of organizing around a cause or an issue is to draw to it greater public attention so that it exists on an equal footing with all the other causes or issues under debate. Once an issue gains prominence in the community, the goal of assimilating it into the fabric of the community can too easily get side-tracked and lost in the process. It simply becomes a means to other ends. So integrating a single agenda into the fabric of larger common causes has been a hard thing to accomplish for many of the special-interest groups; the letting go of the specialness–the uniqueness–of the cause has proven to be very difficult, indeed.

Part of this difficulty springs from the fear that in assimilating into the larger community the identity of the group, cause, or issue will be lost (as will all the jobs that were built up around it). In addition, there is a lack of confidence that the leaders of the community will uphold the good intentions of the cause. An attitude of “You’re not one of us so how can we trust you to protect our interests?” feeds distrust. This has led to the overabundance of single-issue officials currently listed on the nation’s ledger of senior managers and administrators.

Those who are leading the special interests have little or no desire to connect their issues with others for fear of diluting their potential gain. In the campaign to gain and sustain power, political leaders will act in ways that undermine and may even help destroy the institutions they seek to lead. This is clearly an abdication of ethical and moral responsibility. Newt Gingrich’s campaign to take over the House of Representatives was a case in point. When C-SPAN was first introduced, he coordinated speeches from the floor that would identify individuals from the other side and criticize them as if they were present in the hall. This created such uproar that C-SPAN began showing images of the empty room from time to time just so viewers could see that no one was present. This helped stop the attacks.

Conversely, architects are trained to maintain high standards of ethical responsibility, so much so that many in the profession refrain from participating in activities that would benefit from their expertise, such as serving on local planning commissions, simply to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest. This leaves the work to be done by conscientious, caring citizens who nonetheless have little or no training in professional planning. Also, the fact that architects are required to see their work through to completion demands a consistent, ethical approach to the task and makes architects more sensitive to these issues as well.

Architects are more inclined to think of themselves as stewards rather than leaders. Architecture is, after all, a service profession. Service denotes stewardship, involves integration and facilitation, and engenders a cooperative approach to problem solving.

The essayist and business leader Robert K. Greenleaf has identified ten traits characteristic of servant-leaders:

1. Receptive listening.

2. Empathy to accept and recognize people for their special and unique spirit.

3. Healing to transform oneself and others.

4. Awareness–especially about values and ethics.

5. Persuasion to convince others, not to coerce compliance.

6. Conceptualization to dream great dreams.

7. Foresight to understand the lessons of the past, the realities of the present, and, likely, the consequences of a future decision.

8. Stewardship to hold something in trust for another–a commitment to serve the needs of others.

9. Commitment to the growth of people.

10. Building community among those who work together.[5]

Could the pedagogy of leadership training that dominates our law schools and advanced business degree programs be the culprit responsible for turning out contemporary leaders who are unwilling to negotiate, compromise, and/or combine their efforts whenever possible? Does such a highly evolved, single-minded, self-serving focus on the bottom line produce benefits that serve the overall interests of society or just those of a select few?

Dr. J. Sterling Livingston’s classic paper, “Myth of the Well-Educated Manager,” originally published in the Harvard Business Review in January 1971, points to the lack of ethics training in our nation’s most prestigious MBA programs. His concerns about the outcome of such myopic professional training can now be understood in the context of the Enron Corporation’s disgraceful implosion and the collapse of other businesses of similar ilk since Livingston’s article was published more than three decades ago.

The power of NO and the flagrant distortion of any opposing position has nearly eliminated the positive characteristics of trust, integrity, responsibility, creativity, vision, and courage from the platform of public debate. For example, the unwillingness of either the prochoice or the prolife movement to recognize that the majority of Americans hold a position on the subject of abortion somewhere in between the polar extremes of the issue demonstrates their respective insecurity about encouraging a more inclusive, informed public discussion on a highly sensitive and intensely personal issue.

What we get instead from our leaders are highly contrived facsimiles of the sought-for attributes of trust, integrity, responsibility, creativity, vision, and courage. Like an artist’s rendering of a proposed building, what is presented to the public is a flat, illusionary image of the much more desired three-dimensional reality.

That is why the example of the architecture profession as a source of leadership for civic society is such a compelling one. Architects spend their working lives turning ideas into reality through the servant-leadership process: they listen to their clients, work with them to help visualize their dreams, and, ultimately, transform those visions into reality through the designs and plan documents they produce. (continues on next page)

Click for Next Page: What Architects Can Bring to the Politics of Civic Engagement

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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Footnotes from this Page

[4]Remember the Willie Horton ad in the 1988 presidential campaign? The Republicans vilified the Democratic candidate, Michael Dukakis, by implying in their ad that, if elected, Dukakis would free every murderer sitting on death row because he had released one in Massachusetts. But Democrats have been equally calculating. In his run for the U.S.Senate, Republican Mitt Romney (current governor of Massachusetts) was characterized as a cold-hearted businessman who fired employees as the means to turn a profit. The example cited was his handling of the turnaround of Staples, the office supply superstore in the early 1990s. It is true that jobs were eliminated, but the health of the company was restored, and its subsequent growth has meant that many more jobs have been created than were originally lost.

[5]Larry C.Spears, Reflections on Leadership: How Robert K. Greenleaf’s Theory of Servant Leadership Influenced Today’s Top Management Thinkers (New York:John Wiley & Sons, 1995), 4–7.