Finding your stride as a leader

July 2011 » Columns » LEADERSHIP
Ed Friedrichs

I—€™m often asked two questions about leadership:

  1. Are leaders born or made?
  2. How did you become a leader?

I believe that anyone has the potential to become a leader. Despite endless debate on the subject of nature versus nurture, consider a few pieces of evidence. Terry Sejnowski—€™s excellent book, —€œLiars, Lovers and Heroes,—€ makes a strong case for nurture —€” our early childhood experiences —€” as the stronger of the influences on whom we become. Marcus Buckingham—€™s book, —€œNow Discover Your Strengths,—€ includes a profiling device that allows readers to assess their five key strengths from 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.

How do certain people rise to leadership positions? Becoming an Eagle Scout or taking on 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 had few leadership roles through high school and college, and yet somehow along the way 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. How did this come 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 tend 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 that they deeply believed in. A number of people had gathered around them who embraced their passionate commitment.

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 1960s, 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 —€œteam 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 it, and the one who was paying the bills —€” and no one person sat in more than one chair) to say —€œyes.—€ 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 collaborate with a contractor and subcontractors —€” over whom I had no authority —€” to build 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 to 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 I wanted 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, —€œWhat 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 is chairman of ZweigWhite. He previously was president of Gensler, Architecture Design and Planning Worldwide. During his tenure at Gensler, he established the firm—€™s successful practice areas in entertainment, transportation, urban and master planning, and strategic facility consulting. He can be contacted at info@zweigwhite.com.


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