Reaping the benefits of good leadership

Colander Associate, John Forrester explores why leadership is so important and how it can be developed...


People instinctively recognise the importance of leadership but few understand how it can be nurtured and developed.

In any organisation, employees expect authentic leadership from those who are hierarchically senior.  However, being a manager doesn’t automatically endow someone with leadership ability.  Regardless of status, to become a leader an individual must demonstrate characteristics that create trust and goodwill, and which persuade or inspire others to follow or collaborate; without these characteristics they are merely managers. 

Inter-personal attributes or ‘soft skills’ are at least as important to leadership as quantifiable professional abilities because, in the first instance, leadership appeals to emotion rather than intellect and because our perception of someone’s trustworthiness is instinctive rather than rational. 

Ideally, all managers should have proven ‘people skills’ to equip them to lead.  In reality, managers tend to be appointed for more pragmatic reasons: time served; budgets controlled; deadlines met; technical skills demonstrated; nepotism realised; and so on.  It is unsurprising that some struggle to lead effectively, especially if they lack confidence or emotional intelligence; such managers may get the job done through authoritarian power and coercion but they will not win hearts and minds.  A default autocratic approach is often counter-productive and, in extreme cases, will leave employees – especially those with a creative streak – feeling demotivated, resentful or abused. 


WHY IS LEADERSHIP SO IMPORTANT?

Practices achieve lasting success by gaining a ‘competitive advantage’, which means doing things better than and perhaps differently to their competitors.  We all know how this works when it comes to delivering a masterplan, a building, an interior space or even a product or a brand but it is equally important when it comes to creating and delivering a business.  Competitive advantage arises when a workforce demonstrates discretionary behaviour, when everyone is prepared to ‘go the extra mile’ to think beyond their immediate tasks and work collaboratively with drive, initiative and flair.  Your leadership will determine how much your practice’s culture and processes actually encourage, recognise and reward discretionary behaviour.  

It goes without saying that the architectural and design professions rely on intelligent, creative people.  As a breed, these people don’t respond positively to being over-managed but most do respond positively to being well led!  Most accept that there are procedural or mundane aspects to their work but they also expect to be given interesting opportunities to learn from others and to express and develop their own ideas and talents.  Certainly, a practice won’t get the best from people who are given a limited and repetitive remit that involves following directives without question or complaint and who therefore feel downtrodden and untrusted. 

Over the longer term, well led practices are more productive and profitable.  They provide a better service to their clients and a happier and less stressful workplace with lower rates of employee sickness and turnover.


WHO SHOULD DO THE LEADING?

Good leadership harnesses good ideas: from the small and intensely practical to the enormous and life-changing.  Putting ego and hierarchy aside for a moment, and focusing instead on pursuing the greater good, it doesn’t matter whose ideas prevail as long as they are good and supported by as many people as possible.  In theory therefore, anyone can be a leader of ideas.

Ultimately however, the burden of leadership, of pushing ahead with the best ideas, of bringing them to fruition and ensuring that new ones keep coming to the surface, rests with those at the top of the hierarchy.  This means that it is especially important for senior people to exhibit equanimity, wisdom and ‘goodness’ to inspire confidence and positivity among others in and around the organisation.

But leadership is not solely the preserve of senior management – it must be evidenced day-to-day, by people at every level in a practice.  

Much of the leadership burden for partners and directors is concerned with strategic or operational aspects but teams at the coalface need practical leadership from their middle managers and supervisors, albeit within narrower or task-focused parameters, to ensure that each project or office function is completed efficiently, professionally and to a high standard.      


DEVELOPING LEADERSHIP

There is no question that nurturing leadership at junior level is an essential aspect to succession planning.  Few people are natural leaders but many can become very effective if, from an early stage, they’re given sufficient opportunities, training and encouragement to develop their leadership potential.  It is particularly useful if their senior managers are already role models for good leadership.

Capable leaders don’t fear leadership potential in others – indeed, they encourage it, from a position of strength and confidence.  So, the next great game-changing idea in your practice could come from someone relatively junior… but only if you encourage leadership and contribution from all.