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.

Design Genius is not Design Leadership: Avoiding the cult of architectural design secrecy

Design Leadership requires the ability to be open and transparent about the way ideas and design knowledge is conceived, transmitted and fostered in the organisation. One thing that seems to hamper research across the field of architecture is a culture of secrecy. There are patches of this culture all across the topography of architecture. It manifests itself in a number of ways and at a number of levels. It might be the directors in a larger firm afraid of sharing information that is seen to have some competitive advantage. After all, if the cabal shares the premises of a firm’s competitive advantage that might mean exposing that knowledge as inconsequential. It could be the project architect who hangs on to project information and does not share it with others in the team. Better to keep them guessing or in the dark. It is easier not to explain anything. Or it could be the so-called design architect who refuses to reveal the sources or the inspiration of his conceptual ideas. After all, someone might steal those ideas and claim them as their own.

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All of these shenanigans of secret knowledge, tacit and unspoken communication and preciousness are corrosive to developing an architectural culture that maximises design knowledge. The covens of design managerialism and secrecy, the power tripping of withheld project information, and the egotistical horrors of pathetic design ideas made more important by being locked in the head of the design architect. All of these attitudes make it very difficult to conduct research within the profession.

I am not really sure where this culture begins. Of course, the curricula and studio systems of the architecture schools as usual, can be blamed. Few subjects are devoted to leadership and organisational governance in architecture school curricula. No wonder the profession is struggling to maintain itself.

In these systems, without the right studio leadership, individual competition can be vain, petty and subject to the vagaries and whims of favouritism. We have all been in studios where we will never make the favoured circle. Design Leadership is not about simply reinforcing and replicating your own theoretical position or the way you were taught architecture. Nor is Design Leadership is not about positioning a design within systems of parochial politics in order to gain influence. It is not about designing in a way that positions you for a commission or a peer award.

To reiterate, Design Leadership is about maximising design knowledge in the most efficient, effective and brutal way possible. After all when the rubber hits the road and the project is besieged by clients, value managers, and contractors the design ideas need to survive the journey.

The continued glorification of the design genius, which I have written about elsewhere, only leads to a situation where the profession is riven by localised mystery cults. Each genius, whatever their stature, surrounded by acolytes along with initiation ceremonies, encouraged rivalries, different circles of access and knowledge. It all starts to sound like Trump’s White House. Better to be an outsider than in the cult. So here a four principles to creating a culture of Design Leadership in your practice.

  1. Make design processes visible

Design leaders have clear processes in place. These processes are visible, transparent and communicable. Design leaders understand design processes and how these processes work through team environments. Design Leadership requires generating design knowledge and ideas through clearly communicated actions and gestures. By doing this everyone in the team can pursue, develop and contribute to the design.

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  1. Don’t hide design knowledge.

Hiding design information only creates islands of territorial power. The role of Design Leadership is to constantly posit design knowledge into the public sphere. Of course this sphere may the realm of the project team or it may be the consultant team. from different groups or individuals within the organisation It is not about hiding things away. If design are ideas are hidden they are not fully tested and may then crumble at the first sign of value management.

  1. Make designing inclusive.

Design Leadership does not require the trappings of a cult. It does not exclude or set boundaries around who can be in and out of the team. A collaborative team open to a range of design views is better than a team subservient to a single design view. Effective design leaders mentor and foster their team members. They do this is in order to make individual team members better designers.

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  1. Create space for design.

Good design leaders are bale to create safe havens for the most extreme and seemingly kookiest of design ideas. This is because, Design Leadership requires teams that ask questions rather than teams that simply reiterate like-minded principles. Excellence in Design Leadership nurtures and fosters this questioning. Everyone should feel safe to ask the dumb questions in the design team.

  1. Creates more ideas than can be used.

This is the measure of great Design Leadership. Having a cauldron of ideas constantly generated and replenished as the project proceeds. Design Leadership means both generating and then managing design ideas as they proceed. Design Leadership means having the luxury to pick, choose and give life to the best of architectural design knowledge.

Architects need to change the way they approach Design Leadership and their own organisational structures. Architects need to more effectively manage their own pool of talent. What architect wants to sit in front of a computer second guessing what needs to be done? Worse still, is sitting in front of a computer knowing whatever you do is never going to be quite right, because you weren’t initiated into the favoured circle.

Now back after a brief Easter Break !