From the Chairman: Aspire/inspire

Jun 10, 2013

These are the two core words that define how and what people lead.

I’ve spent a great deal of time thinking and learning about leadership. Endless books have been written about leadership and I’ve pursued them with a keen interest. I can spend all day talking about leadership – in fact I did exactly that for ZweigWhite a year or so ago, conducting a series of daylong seminars on the subject. Being asked to speak about the subject has caused me to distill my experiences in an attempt to get to the core of how someone emerges as a leader. Leadership is arguably the most important skill and talent for a design professional. After all, we have tremendous responsibility and accountability for what we do, but very little authority over those who build the things we design. To get things done, and done well, we have to draw those we work with into our vision. In fact, in my experience, the quality of the outcome of a design professional’s work (a building, a bridge, a landscape) is directly attributable to his or her leadership skills and style. Leadership is the magic ingredient that makes great teams. It creates an atmosphere that fosters collaboration, inspires innovation and achieves design excellence. Without it, great things don’t get built. When I’ve asked clients over the years what they valued most from our firm, and from me personally, they have consistently answered the same way. While they have used different words, their intent could always be summed up as “getting to yes.” Projects always begin with a group of unaligned people who have the ability to say “no” – a building official, a lender, a contractor, a lawyer. All have interests in and authority for the project at hand, but each has different goals and priorities. The design professional’s task is to help each of them see that the design approach being taken completely satisfies each. This is what keeps a project moving because, for all involved, time is money. It is the design professional’s leadership skill that helps each person to feel confident, trusting that the solution at hand is exactly right to solve his or her issue. This caused me many years ago to reconsider the Golden Rule, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Very self-centered, that notion, in that it presumes that just because you like something done a particular way, others will as well. In a world where everyone’s priorities, needs and fears are different, I changed the Golden Rule to read, “Do unto others and they want to be done unto.” That’s the leadership attitude required in today’s world. All of this brought me to one observation: There are two core words that define how and what people lead: aspire and inspire. Here’s how it looks to me. We do best what we’re passionate about or, as a fortune cookie I opened the other day said, “Great direction comes from your heart.” Leadership begins with what you aspire to, the thing that is so important to you that you set all else aside to accomplish it. These are not the things that are assigned to you, or things you do out of duty. The things you aspire to accomplish are the ones you believe will make the world a better place. Leaders learn very quickly that they can’t achieve the things they aspire to by themselves, which is what brought me to the second word, inspire. Through their leadership style, leaders are able to inspire others around them to embrace their vision and help them accomplish it. What do you aspire to? As you search within yourself for your own passions, your aspirations, you’ll discover what you should be leading. I’ve found that it differs for each of us. Some folks get very excited about leading a client relationship. They become most adept at engaging deeply with their client, understanding with great empathy how their work together is going to improve the client’s life. They form deep bonds of friendship and trust. Others find deep satisfaction in managing a team to execute a project, gaining full support from the team of contractors, subcontractors, suppliers and building officials. They inspire engineering consultants to assign their most talented and creative staff to the project and enlist everyone’s collaboration to make the design work brilliantly. Yet other folks will pursue a project type, like airports or hospitals, becoming renowned experts in their field, sought after for the depth of knowledge and their creativity, leading to innovation in the field. Finally, there’s that unique individual who steps forward to lead a firm. The person finds satisfaction and fulfillment in the full breadth of activities required to make a firm successful: great business instincts, an ability to cope calmly with crises, a passion for inspiring a culture that talented professionals line up to become a part of. For each of these paths, the person who has stepped forth to lead “owns” the aspiration they are pursuing. They’re proud to hold themselves accountable and expect others to hold them accountable for what they’re trying to accomplish. And they keep score. They are keenly aware of the metrics that will indicate how they’re doing. Each of these is borne of personal passion that leads to an aspiration to achieve something important, supported by the ability to inspire others to become part of a dream. Edward Friedrichs, FAIA, FIIDA, is a consultant with ZweigWhite and the former CEO and president of Gensler. Contact him at This article first appeared in The Zweig Letter (ISSN 1068-1310), issue #1011, originally published 6/10/2013. Copyright© 2013, ZweigWhite. All rights reserved.

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