How to be a Design Leader

Architects Leading in their Communities

How to improve your 2019 resolutions list

By Eric Fisher, AIA, LEED AP and Bea Spolidoro, AIA, WELL


As architects are making resolution lists for the new year, one item you may add if you haven’t already is becoming a leader in your community.  You may believe your designs make you a leader. They speak for themselves after all. And I’m sure you are busy. It takes so long, you may think, to do your paid job that you simply don’t have time to do other professional work. Your families call.  Your local night spot beckons.  Yet please be aware that leadership work can be spiritually rewarding.


On November 9, 2018 the AIA National Center For Civic Leadership (CCL) organized a full day of panels and seminars on how architects can improve their leadership skills and become leaders in their communities. Any AIA member could choose to either attend the entire event in person or view the event remotely at all day viewing parties set up in San Francisco, Orlando, and Nashville.


The guest speakers were involved in very different architectural leadership roles, from project management to politics. The organizers had already shared in advance an AIA booklet called the “Citizen Architect Handbook” ( , which offers plenty of ideas on how to get involved, politically and socially, and how to maximize the impact of our service. A second link was to the publication, “Living Your Life as a Leader”, presenting different characteristics that successful architects often possess. The anticipated event goals were to produce 1) a “leadership development culture”, 2) to prepare the next generation of leaders, 3) to promote leadership in the community, and 4) to proliferate equity, diversity and inclusion.


So our two person Pittsburgh contingent headed down to Washington DC for the day. One of us wanted to meet people and learn skills that would assist here in Pittsburgh.  The other, a bit more skeptical, was interested in learning if the phrase “leadership and design excellence” is an oxymoron.


April C. Drake, AIA kicked off the day with her reflections on “Breaking the Missing Middle”, highlighting the difficulties facing architects with ten to thirty years of professional experience.  In particular, professionals in this missing middle often struggle to find the time to develop their own skills as they are asked to mentor younger architects.  Then, a group of speakers in a panel called, “Bridging the Gap between Design and Community” discussed the challenges of developing community-based projects, and the importance of organizing effective design charrettes. CannonDesign CEO, Brad Lukanic, AIA was one of the afternoon speakers, giving his take on going “Beyond the Future of the Design Profession”. He shared his personal approach to balancing human-centered design thinking with data collection and processing.


The last presentation of the day may have been the most powerful:  Gabrielle Bullock, FAIA (Perkins Will) and John Cary had an animated discussion on the subject of “Diversity, Equity and Leadership”.   Both speakers emphasized the importance of human dignity. However, John took the subject to a new level by presenting super-impressive work built in Africa and the US by Mass Design (, providing examples of how it is possible to build on a budget and organize disparate interests without sacrificing design excellence.


Many short breaks and generous meals allowed plenty of occasions to meet other East Coast architects. AIA 2020 President, Jane Frederick, attended the event and was happy to chat with everyone. She gave a short speech to close the session on the state of the profession and on the importance of taking action as architects to improve our communities.


So what was our takeaway?  We concluded that there are strong reasons to attend Leadership Institute events. First, for professionals living in smaller communities like Pittsburgh, it is vital to get a broader perspective on what other professionals are doing.  Authors’ note: Another great way to obtain this perspective is by attending the AIA National Convention: It’s not just about collecting CE credits!


In addition, the Leadership Institute’s focus on community provides a timely call to action. Designers often express frustration over our lack of power and influence. Just showing up is a good first step towards “becoming the change we want to see”. Of course nothing is simple. Many who benefit from the status quo will oppose your goals, and while it is indeed possible for a diligent individual to make a difference, it is not easy.  Those who succeed often sacrifice much.


Another perk of attending Leadership Institute events is hearing inspiring speakers. Too often we get lost in the day-to-day small frustrations.  It is easy to forget why we chose to pursue this profession. Events like this one help us remember that architecture is not just about logistics. At its best, it is also about ideas that transcend our day-to-day challenges.


As interesting as were the lectures, meeting the other attendees was equally as valuable. We architects often have no context for our work.  We feel as though we are designing in a vacuum unaware that other designers are experiencing the same challenges that we are. It was useful for both of us to hear other architects’ experiences.  And it was fun to trade stories: The sort of architects who attend these events tend to be outgoing, friendly, interesting, creative people. One member of our two person Pittsburgh group felt like kind of a grump for having blanketed attendees up front with his expectations…


It should be noted that this was a very different experience from an architecture lecture at a school or a museum.  For the most part, the speakers were more interested in policy than craft. Yet each presenter was responsible in their own way for the outcome of the designs they presented.  It is possible to advocate for good design even if you may not be able to draw every project line yourself. Frank Lloyd Wright would not have made a strong Illinois Senator. Le Corbusier would have made a lousy French Premier.


We all know how complicated it is to build well.  Our profession is broad enough that each of us can find our own role within.  Some of us are artists. Others are good organizers. Just as there different forms of intelligence, so too are there different varieties of leadership.  Some of the designs these architect-speakers showed us were truly impressive. Others were perhaps not as advanced. However each speaker had a set of well developed ideas to present, and they presented these ideas with passion.


In 2019 our resolution is to join our peers in the community, meeting new people and communicating to the public why architecture matters.  Architects may not think of ourselves as leaders but each of us are in our own way. Leadership is not an option when modifying the urban environment and constructing the cityscape. Helping others to navigate complex situations is a great way to find a greater sense of purpose.


The next National Plenary Session will be held in 2020.  If you want to get involved in the meantime, the AIA Pittsburgh Foundation for Architecture also has a local Leadership Institute . Every year, they organize classes and attend monthly mixers at the AIA Pittsburgh Offices. The intent is for attendees to learn leadership skills as they improve their ability to work with others. To learn more on the Pittsburgh Leadership Institute, visit .

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