Three steps to leadership heaven

Words:
Eleanor Young

Look to the future, engage with others and deliver: that’s the route to sound leadership, young hopefuls are told

How do you lead? That was the question that architecture’s future leaders set out to address when they met at the first of the year’s three events devoted to schooling a new generation of practitioners.

Speaker and leadership expert Steve Radcliffe – whose work the day was built around – has devoted much of his life to mastering libraries of leadership literature as he coached top leaders, before concluding that what was needed was a simple mantra: future, engage, deliver.

Radcliffe could hardly believe that, hailing from humble Wigan, he was able to draw out the best in industry heads – although even before starting out on this path he had experienced success, helping bring the world the divided scalp of Head and Shoulders shampoo adverts.

The messages are worth summarising, even without the immediate back up of Radcliffe’s book, Leadership: Plain and Simple. And into the messages he presented to the audience was woven experience, in this case of the architects who talked under each of his headings of future, engage and deliver.

Radcliffe’s style, demanding you turn to your neighbour for quick fire discussions on certain subjects, ensured that there was much nodding of heads as Radcliffe came to an issue that one or other had identified.

Most people see good leadership as a rare quality. But there should be more good leaders says Radcliffe. Nineteenth century US statesman John Quincy Adams said: ‘If your actions inspire the people to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader.’

But we all start as operators; then, if promoted, we become managers and eventually leaders. Sometimes that last step gets confused as leaders dive back down into doing the technical work, where they feel safe – often undermining others’ sense of competence on the way. Just as you learnt to be an architect so you need to learn to be a leader. 

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And so to the three big lessons. Point one: You have to look to the future. That means making time to think about it. ‘Architects have great future muscles,’ enthused Radcliffe. But this is not about a building. In fact you should start with yourself. Fulfilling personal goals that tally with the organisation as a whole is the most successful way to think about the future – it gives you fuel for the journey. You can see that built into good appraisal systems but sometimes in the cut and thrust of the office it is harder to discern.

‘When you are with a leader you are with someone who is up to something,’ Radcliffe said. The serious way of putting that might be ‘purposeful’ but there is a cheeky sense of fun in ‘being up to something’ that certainly appeals. Aim for a future place even if you can’t see the way, was his advice.

But you can’t do this alone. You need to engage others (this is point two). They need to experience the possibilities to see the opportunities. Your own enthusiasm can be contagious but you can’t just deliver it in an email. Radcliffe went through the scale between engaged and disengaged colleagues and collaborators, from resistance and apathy to willing compliance and actual commitment. ‘You need an engagement campaign,’ he advised.

And then, thirdly, to deliver; with a plan and robust dialogue. Here the architect speakers took the lead and clearly demonstrated some of Radcliffe’s points. Jo Wright detailed her journey to inspire a change of culture at the long-established Arup Associates and some of the tough discussions and lessons along the way to getting drawings pinned on the wall and design discussed happily between teams. Steve Tompkins, who has built Haworth Tompkins from scratch, started by describing his studio as ‘a bunch of eccentrics and misfits’. ‘People want to join the conversation, the party,’ he said. He has borrowed the techniques of some of his creative clients and most fascinatingly from Battersea Arts Centre where improvisation is the order of the day. ‘We wanted to reinvent the process and share authorship and risk,’ he says. Here the architects treated every collaborator, from heritage stakeholder to building control officer, as an artist. The results were ‘extraordinarily creative’ says Tompkins.

Radcliffe’s exhortation that ‘everyone can be a leader’ might sound like hubris. Surely any practice can take only one of these (and their egos)? But in the context of leading on particular expertise or sectors, as later speakers suggested, or across a project team, it becomes crystal clear that the simple lessons of future, engage, deliver can and should be applied by architects at many stages of their career. Together they could make for better buildings, a stronger profession and more fulfilled individuals.


More on the RIBA's Future Leaders sessions