Lessons from the past

Oct 29, 2018

In a time of polarization and crass tribalism, don’t forget the founding norms of respect and civility. It’ll be good for you, your firm, and your clients.

I’ve finally gotten around to reading John Adams, the acclaimed 2002 biography by David McCullough, which was the basis for the 2008 television miniseries on the life and times of the second president of the United States.

As I read the wonderful quotes from Adams’ writings and journals, along with the insights from other Founding Fathers such as Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, I’m struck by the lessons many of today’s leaders need to learn (or re-learn). It’s both instructive and inspirational to see how these men approached, debated, and collaborated as they made the decision to declare independence from England. It is Adams’ brilliance, humanity, and courage that make me wish we had statesmen today with similar levels of civility and respect displayed almost 250 years ago.

The principles that come from that generation of Americans had to do with decency as they debated and fought amongst themselves to win – ultimately not for themselves, but for a nation. After all, this was an era filled with much of the same polarization we observe today in a divisive, hyper-political environment. The difference centuries ago was the civility exhibited by the leaders, taking on the job of uniting America around well-thought-out and agreed-upon principles of governance: Rule of Law, a two-house legislature, an elected executive with veto power, and a judiciary made up of judges appointed for life. It’s all there in the Declaration of Independence and Adams’ draft for the Massachusetts Constitution.

Granted, those were simpler times with fewer people in the country, fewer laws, and minimal regulation. Today, things are more complex, but the fundamentals remain the same – the need for respectful and responsible leadership that sees as a core responsibility the uniting of people around a common cause.

It’s not 1776, but we can all take a lesson from our Founding Fathers. So, ask yourself: How is my firm being led? Am I reaching out to guide our people to find common ground when they differ in their approach to client matters and interpersonal relationships in our enterprise?

The last thing your clients want to see is squabbling or differences in the project’s direction within your own staff. The first amendment to the U.S. Constitution declares freedom of speech, which naturally promulgates the airing of different points of view. An effective leader doesn’t stifle differing opinions or alternative solutions but directs and coaches with civility and respect, and expects the same from everyone on the team, leading by example.

An effective leader challenges the team to think from the clients’ points-of-view. Clients always want to hear about alternative solutions to solving their problem, but they depend on the firm’s leadership to help them sort through the alternatives, listen to their thoughts on the subject, and then guide them to the best approach.

This type of leadership – taught and demanded, with healthy doses of respect and civility – is what I believe is the reason for success for firms both large and small. It’s what I experienced at Gensler and what I hope for you and your firm.

Edward Friedrichs, FAIA, FIIDA, is the former CEO and president of Gensler. Contact him at efriedrichs@zweiggroup.com.

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