The AIA 2013 Convention: Leadership is a Choice

Eagle.shutterstock_134186822I usually write about the AIA 2030 Commitment. My focus has been architecture and climate change. And since last Monday was Earth Day, I had a rich supply of emails and RSS feeds to fuel the ever-present need for new blog material.

The best thing I saw last Monday was this 10-minute video of Dr. Amory Lovins (Hon. AIA) giving the keynote at “RMI25: Celebrating Solutions”, the Rocky Mountain Institute’s 25th Anniversary Gala.

Dr. Lovins, an environmental scientist and physicist, is co-founder and Chief Scientist at the Rocky Mountain Institute. The RMI’s work is focused on renewable energy and resource efficiency. Dr. Lovins has advised the US government on energy policy, written several books on sustainability and was named one of the world’s 100 most influential people by Time magazine in 2009.  And true, he tells a damn good story.

For my money, Amory Lovins is a real leader. One of the founding fathers of the 21st-century sustainability movement. His book, Natural Capitalism, and Chapter 6, “Tunneling Through the Cost Barrier”, is required reading. His address at that conference was leadership in action.

What got me so jazzed about this little speech? I think we architects can learn a lot about leadership from folks like Amory Lovins. Allow me to elaborate:

Leadership takes vision. Vision is job one for leadership. Amory Lovins has a vision for a post-carbon world, and he shares it with us in this speech. In fact, whenever he speaks he shares his vision. It’s potent and persuasive. This is a good object lesson for architects. Vision is our core competency. We understand external forces, manage variables, and imagine a thing that doesn’t exist yet responds to an elaborate set of real-world constraints. That’s quite a skill. Perfect for leadership.

Design ideas are visions for our projects. Market positions and competitive advantages are visions for our firms. But none of these are meaningful to people outside our professional circles. A vision for a neighborhood in which all residents share equally in all the city’s benefits; a vision for a city that preserves its resources for future generations? Those are the kinds of visions that can inspire an entire community. Or more.

Leadership requires effective communication.  Dr. Lovins begins his address by saying “let me tell you a story”. He quotes Dr. Martin Luther King saying “peace is not the absence of war; it is the presence of justice.” He shares the “guiding parable” of the Rocky Mountain Institute: a saga that begins with the World Health Organization, Malaria and DDT and ends with cats in parachutes. His message: see how all things are connected, and see how the cause of a problem is sometimes a proposed “solution”.

This is the language of leadership. It is outwardly-focused, intended for a broad audience. The message is clear, but its implications are nuanced and complex. It is compelling without being strident.

Architects are pretty good with communication. Although our writing and speaking is far too often dense with jargon (or just in need of editing!), we have the advantage of being able to communicate with images. Sketches and diagrams are extremely potent when it comes to sharing a vision. This is another excellent skill for leaders to have. 

Leadership transcends expertise. People pay attention to Dr. Lovins because he’s a well-respected scientist, thus giving him credibility. But there is a difference between being a “leading scientist” and being a scientist-as-leader. The work of leading scientists is generally appreciated by the scientific community but unknown to most everyone else. To be a scientist-as-leader, one has to step outside the discipline and engage other people. The Union of Concerned Scientists was founded by scientists acting as leaders.

A leading architect could have a great resume, many publications and awards, and fabulous projects that are considered exemplars of their type. And a line of clients down the street. But most leading architects are unknown even to the people who use their buildings every day.

This is where we fall short. An architect-as-leader must step outside the practice model and address issues that matter to their fellow citizens. They must speak up on subjects like promoting renewable energy, comprehensive planning and smart growth, design excellence in the public realm. They must use their knowledge and experience as architects to be convincing, but must speak as a person or a voter or a member of a civil society, not as an architect.

But we have worked so hard to become trained and credentialed and are so accustomed to the challenges and opportunities of our beloved practice. We hate to leave that familiar setting. But that’s what it takes to be a leader. Because, ultimately . . .

Leadership is a choice.  People aren’t born to lead or required to become leaders. Dr. Lovins could have been perfectly happy as a scientist. He didn’t need to become a leader. You don’t have to be a leader, either. You could be one of many people who just live and breathe design and want to be the best architect you possibly can.

But if you find yourself believing in a vision and motivated to redress a wrong or advocate for change that will benefit others, you may find yourself in a position of leadership. And if we, as a profession, are going to deliver on a manifesto like “We are America’s architects. We are committed to building a better world”, we need more architects to become leaders.


2 Comments on “The AIA 2013 Convention: Leadership is a Choice”

  1. Peter Papesch, AIA, chair, BSA Sustainability Education says:

    It’s no accident that the author became the president of the BSA!

  2. Mike Davis FAIA says:

    Thanks again, Peter. I’m happy for your support!


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