Howard Roarkness: Identifying the 6 stages of the alpha male egocentric architect.

In architectural practice one of the variants of the alpha male egocentric architect is the holy monster. Howard Roark in Ayn/Anne Rand’s novel Fountainhead seems to epitomise many of the characteristics of this type. Some of these figures exist in both smaller and larger organisational and practice contexts. The antics of a few of these alpha male variants have been on my radar of late. Within the practices and organisations that serve architecture these “types” sometimes serve useful functions, and while not all of them are complete narcissists, they mostly cause more trouble than they are worth.

My point here is not to single out particular identities, known to us all, but to point to the fact that architects need to be better at leadership. We need better leaders, we need better systems for learning about strategic and organisational leadership—it is indeed not one of the AACA competencies. We need different leadership, and that’s not the same as a guise of diversity with the same old leadership model’s underneath. We also need better systems, within both our schools of architecture and practices, of mentoring and encouraging authentic leadership. Diversity and intersectionality must be a part of the mix especially if we are only recruiting in our image or only listen to the voices of sameness. Architecture needs more leaders like Leigh Bowery.

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Last week I actually saw a leader own up to and take responsibility for a mistake. It was great to see some plain speaking. I wonder as a professional collective if architects are too used to dissembling and explaining things away for the clients.

Again, there is a kind of semblance of a lifecycle for these types. To some people, usually, those who give them credence and authority, the types look like, act and are accepted, as leaders. Often without question. I have mapped the stages of evolution for these holy monsters, and many readers will appreciate that these figures inhabit the different ecosystems and tribes discussed in last weeks blog. I am sure you will all recognise someone you know.

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The 6 Leadership Stages of the Howard Roark.

Stage 1: The Golden Boy.

Relaxed and lazy, went to the right design studio (and or school), boyishly charming, well-bred and slightly precocious. Doesn’t seem to do a lot of work but seems to get the breaks. Never really has any of their own ideas but always seems to be onto the “latest” thing. In some variants, the boyish charms sets in and solidifies for life.

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Stage 2: The Up and Coming

They have usually had a promotion of some kind to project architect, associate, associate director. Catapulted from, they are dashing and fashionable and opinionated. They are good at managing upwards and ticking the boxes for the promotion criteria. Sometimes they never stay in the same place to be really tested as they are always moving onto the next gig before the mess of their own making hits the fan ( I have been stuck in this one for about ten millenia).

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Stage 3: The Charming and Cunning Crook

These are the figures that have usually got somewhere, with some kind of title or advanced position, they have succeeded through the previous two stages. Secretly, they worry about their own worth and contribution to the discourse. But, basically, they employ their charm to do as little work as possible and to advance their own career. They are crooked in the sense if you are not careful you will do the work they were meant to do.

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Stage 4: The Affable Bully

As the Howard Roarkian figure moves up the food chain, they need to get things done. If they are not trying to trick people they usually just bully people. This usually exhibits itself as passive aggressiveness. Charming, on the one hand, regarded as a “a good bloke” but as soon as they need something done, they will bully you. Rarely do they give you compliments which is the first sign you should be aware of.

In stage 5 there are two variants:

Stage 5A: The Pompous Sage

These are the people who have gone through all the stages made some achievements and then pontificate. They might be directors or business owners who are good at getting jobs. Their wisdom is rarely real insight about architecture but usually insights that are fundamentally about themselves. Don’t get caught in a corner with these ones at the practice Christmas party. They will bore you senseless.

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Stage 5B: Holy Monster

This one is the most dangerous, full of self-regard, fickle, narcissistic. Trump-like in many ways. Sometimes they get things done because everyone is scared of them. But getting things done is extremely rare. But I have seen this type all too often once or maybe twice or actually maybe a lot in my 40-year ethnography of the local profession. They usually have the most amazing fights with builders. Sometimes they will use their holy monster status to sleep with whoever they like. Once they are spent, or age catches up with them they revert to Type 5B.

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I find this kind of thing fascinating because I am sure we have all worked with these types and we all recognise some of these traits.

More importantly, I think architects really need to reflect on leadership theory and practice and be more critical of the monoculture that spawns, encourages and tolerates these types. We need better mentoring programs, we need to teach leadership in architecture schools, we need professional development around these issues, and for the sake of our profession, we need to put a higher value on authentic and diverse leadership.