From the Chairman: Finding your stride as a leader

May 13, 2011

I’m often asked two questions about leadership: 1. Are leaders born or made? 2. How did you become a leader? I believe everyone has the potential become a leader. Despite endless debate on the subject of nature vs. nurture, let’s look at a few pieces of evidence. Terry Sejnowski’s excellent book, Liars, Lovers and Heroes makes a strong case for “nurture,” our early childhood experiences, as the stronger of the influences on who we become. Marcus Buckingham’s book, Now Discover Your Strengths, includes a profiling device that allows the reader to receive an assessment of their five key strengths among 34 described in the book. But no mention is made that any possible combination precludes a person from growing into a leadership role. We’ve all known leaders with very different styles who have become quite successful. So, I weigh in heavily on the side of made, not born, when it comes to who is eligible for a leadership role. Sure, even on the playground, some children seem to have a natural ability to assume leadership roles— others just seem to naturally follow them. But does that mean they were born that way or is their head start simply the result of early childhood experiences? I have yet to see any correlative evidence connecting these young standouts to a future role as President of the United States, let alone heads of companies or other leadership positions. If we can look beyond whether we have been blessed with leadership genes or not, then ask, ‘How do certain people rise to leadership positions?’ Certain experiences in youth tend to yield a higher proportion of leaders in later life— becoming an Eagle Scout or a sequence of leadership roles through high school and college can all have a reinforcing effect, encouraging growth into ever more responsible positions— but that’s not all there is. For example, I was not an early childhood leader. I was pushed ahead a grade in grammar school, leaving me the youngest and smallest kid on the playground— not an advantageous platform for leadership. I had few leadership roles through high school and college and yet somehow found a calling to lead, and developed an ability to help the people around me to see a direction that they found worthy of embrace. Let’s explore how this came about. First, it’s worth asking a couple of classic leadership questions: Is the most important trait of a leader to look behind once in a while to see if people are really following, or is it most important to figure out where people want to go and then get in front of them? While I lean toward the latter strategy, I made the observation early in my career that the leaders I most admired weren’t really leading in either of these two ways. By contrast, they all seemed to have found a direction in which they deeply believed. People who also embraced their passionate commitment gathered around them. I began my career as an architect with the normal, singular purpose espoused in the university at the time: to design great buildings. Very little in my education prepared me for what it took to accomplish this end. In fact, back in the ‘60s, the era of Ayn Rand’s Howard Roark, architecture was, indeed, a pretty singular pursuit. But as construction and, more importantly the entitlement process, became increasingly complex, bringing a building to reality became a “team sport.” This was a catalytic realization for me. I couldn’t just sit in a corner and do design, I also had to inspire a multi-headed client (the one who hired me; the ones who were going to live in my buildings; the one who was paying the bills— and no one person sat in more than one chair) to say “yes.” I had to convince architectural review boards, planning commissions and hoards of banner-waving, protesting neighbors that the building I was presenting was a wonderful enhancement to their community. I had to inspire the team around me, architects and engineers, to work in concert to play the same melody. I had to work with contractors and subcontractors over whom I had no authority, to work in collaboration to assemble the building we had designed without tripping us up along the way. Wow! What an eye opener. I woke up one morning realizing that the design professions may be the finest leadership-training program anywhere. I had a few more wake up calls along the way (more in the middle of the night than first thing in the morning) that helped me grow. First: I found that I couldn’t coax, cajole or otherwise drag, kicking and screaming, the people around me to keep moving in the same direction. I had to inspire them to do so. For me, the magic ingredient was to step back regularly and ask myself what kind of a firm did I want to be part of. What kind of a team atmosphere would make me feel like joining in, proud of what we were accomplishing together? Second, every time things seemed to be going sideways for me, I was forced to ask myself, “What do I truly believe in? What are my core values in design and in what I stood for?” From these introspections emerged my style of leadership: Create an organization and an atmosphere that I would like to be a part of. And sure enough, a lot of like-minded people decided to come work with me. Ed Friedrichs Chairman, ZweigWhite 800.466.6275

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