Know Thyself: Ethics, Power, and a Commitment to Serve

February 23, 2005 · by Richard Swett, FAIA

Leadership is often described as the action of an individual, or group of individuals, to affect broad societal change, to spearhead crisis management, or to alter the direction of a specific firm, organization, or community.

Continued from Four Philosophical Cornerstones of the Architecture of Trust

Leadership is often described as the action of an individual, or group of individuals, to affect broad societal change, to spearhead crisis management, or to alter the direction of a specific firm, organization, or community. On occasion, an entire community decides to take action in determining the course of its future.

In both good and bad instances, the forces that give direction to these actions arise out of the motivations and qualities inherent in those who participate. Throughout the ebb and flow of history, the need for good leadership has remained a constant. Clearly, leadership's sustainable presence relies on the consistency established in the bonds of trust built between the
leaders and the community.

Unfortunately, too many stark instances spring to mind of leaders manipulating the masses with fear and confusion. The creation of crisis as the pretext for cementing power is the device of an illegitimate leader who pretends to lead through it. Saddam Hussein, a classic example, is just the latest case in point. In a more democratic order, a real crisis almost certainly will bring out the exceptional individuals who then become the leaders of a community.

America's leaders have been shaped more often by the crisis of war than by any other event. The Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, the Civil War, the Spanish-American War, World War I, World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War have each left an indelible mark on the social history and cultural psyche of this nation.

And when armed conflict was quiescent, spontaneous, terrible catastrophes have also created leaders. Natural disasters like the earthquake that leveled San Francisco on April 16, 1906, or the ferocious devastation of the Great Fire that blew though Chicago on October 8, 1871, brought forth tremendous changes in how America viewed its future and how its cities should henceforth be designed and built.

In Copenhagen, Denmark, the Great Fire of 1728 likewise became an opportunity for Johan Cornelius Krieger, King Frederick IV's master builder, to institute improvements in city planning and building standards.[7] Later still, after the British bombardment of Copenhagen in 1807, led by General Wellesley, Duke of Wellington, Denmark's state architect, Christian Frederik Hansen, was appointed to lead the rebuilding process. Between 1805 and 1845, Hansen, working with serious shortages and economic hardship, was still able to significantly improve the layout of the city, incorporating important social and economic changes that benefited the populace.[8]

Each crisis creates a complex puzzle of new problems added to the existing ones. A crisis will always call upon established leadership to exert extraordinary skill in response to its civic responsibility. But many of those who rise to the challenge of leadership do so as a spontaneous response to crisis. Had no such crisis occurred, perhaps they would have continued on in obscurity, never to reach levels of creativity as significant as those that the duress of crisis challenged them to achieve.

Leadership is about gaining and then using influence. Influence is acquired through a variety of avenues. Building political organizations and/or social institutions is one modern approach that has its origins in the social clubs of yore. Creating associations within professional disciplines or through a shared ideological agenda is another process seemingly preferred by contemporary special-interest groups. But all these tactical approaches are no less foreign to architects than they are to other classes of leaders and have been used quite successfully by architects. Before, during, and after the Civil War, architects, most notably Frederick Law Olmsted, adopted various pragmatic methods to create and wield power.

Stable alliances, although difficult to maintain, are especially characteristic of influential activities in Scandinavia, where minority-led coalitions normally comprise central governments. In the United States, alliances frequently are formed between states in an attempt to influence federal government decision making. But these alliances shift like sand dunes, swept away by the fickle winds of legislators' own mutable agendas. In the European Union the new reality emerging from the EU's expansion eastward is the realignment of old alliances. What was once a process of unanimous decree will become, by necessity, a more nuanced negotiation in order to reach consensus with the many smaller nations now joined into the expanded EU.

Polemical documents and theoretical writings about social policy or on design's social potential have had a measure of influence on public policy, but this impact has either been too subtle to easily discern or, on occasion, been too heavy-handed to last. For such methods of influence to be successful, they need to incorporate data obtained through listening not only to one's colleagues but also to the constituents of the given community and to one's peers outside the profession. Only then can such information be crafted in a way that engenders trust and agreement. Many a passionate broadside or high-minded treatise has met an ill end because of the lack of adequately developed skills to communicate ideas in clear terms with unambivalent phrases.

Ambivalence is the Achilles heel of leadership. It validates apathy. For too many decades, behind a facade of assumed authority, ambivalence and contradiction plagued the architecture profession's leadership, its professional institutions, its practice policies, and its public policy agenda. Every forward step taken on behalf of the profession had been dogged by a pernicious footdragging. As a profession, architects have occasionally emerged as leaders to address the urgent problems of society successfully. To do this, self-awareness and self-criticism cannot be avoided. In 1919, less than six months after the conclusion of World War I, the membership of the American Institute of Architects gathered in Nashville for its annual convention. This meeting would change the institutional and ideological course of the AIA and the hitherto prevailing attitudes of the profession through a profound reassessment of its past errors, its role in society, and its relationship to others. A long list of simple, but profound questions was asked. At the top of this list: What is leadership? After frank discussion, thoughtful answers were put on record and a slew of practical and effective initiatives were undertaken for the good of the whole profession.

Fresh from the unambiguous experience of a dreadful world war, the AIA's membership reaffirmed its commitment to the profession, to their communities, to their fellow workingmen and to their country. Their leadership identified the nature and extent of this chronic ambivalence and banished it. The reform program of the 1919 Post-War Committee-- a call for renewed dedication to purpose, for candor and fairness in all professional conduct, and a greater involvement in civic life--was overwhelmingly affirmed in an unprecedented vote by two-thirds of the majority. The profession had come to the realization, as a body, that commitment to clear, shared, and actionable purposes is the antidote to ambivalence and apathy.

The mission so effectively launched at that national convention lasted only a short decade. The Institute's membership doubled in size during this period, but that was not enough to sustain the inspiring ideas expressed in Nashville. The Great Depression of the 1930s followed by World War II hindered the profession's ability to fully transform itself. To do that would have required not only the articulation of lofty ideals calling for the civic leadership of architects but also the more concrete cementing of those ideals into the foundation of the profession's leadership structure and its institutional memory. Before recounting the words of the inspired architects at that momentous gathering, let's explore some of the building blocks that would help to firm up the foundation of leadership.

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.
Buy it online at the DI Bookstore

Footnotes from this Page

[7]Bente Lange, "Krieger, Johan Cornelius—Court Master Builder,1728," The Colours of Copenhagen (Copenhagen:Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, School of Architecture, Publishers, 1997), 25–26.

[8]Haken Lund, Anne Lise Thygessen, C.F.Hansen (Copenhagen: Arkitektens Forlag, 1995); Jørgen Sestoft and Jørgen Hegner Christiansen, Danish Architecture 1000-1960, Vol.1 (Copenhagen: Arkitektens Forlag, 1991), 146–152.

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Leadership By Design

This article is excerpted from chapter 1 of Leadership by Design: Creating an Architecture of Trust.

Ambassador Richard Swett's groundbreaking new book investigates the unique civic leadership strengths of the architecture profession. Drawing upon the compelling history of the profession, both past and present, as well as from his own singular experience as the only architect to serve in Congress during the 20th century, Swett has produced an insightful volume that is both inspiring and instructive. He shares Mark Twain's view that "if the only tool you have is a hammer, after a while every problem begins to look like a nail." Leadership by Design is an eloquent plea to architects, leaders and citizens alike to expand the tool chest as we seek new leadership to design new solutions for the complex challenges facing our nation and the world.

Buy this book here

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