Many years ago my friend, the late designer George Nelson, told me a story I will never forget. Early in his career George worked for a time with Frank Lloyd Wright. One day when George and the great prairie architect were taking a walk and talking, Wright was struggling to find a metaphor that would explain the essence of architecture. At one point he stopped and pointed to a flower, saying, "Architecture is like this flower….no, that’s not it." He then walked a bit farther, turned and said, "George, architecture is like being in love." After he told me that story George said, "Dick, I hope it doesn’t take you as long as it took me to figure out what he meant by that."
Well, I’m afraid that it did. But I’m beginning to get the idea. It is a paradox. In order to be a professional, one must be an amateur. The word amateur comes from the Latin amator, meaning to love. An amateur is one who does something for the love of it. Of course. Love and passion are the organizing forces in leadership and management, overriding technique or skill, just as they are in almost everything worthwhile doing—romance, parenthood, creativity. Paraphrasing Wright—leadership, then, is like being in love. And paraphrasing George—I hope it will not take you as long to understand that as it took me.
Leadership is like being a good host at a dinner party. Consider what that entails. A good host thoughtfully plans the evening, carefully composes the group, takes pains to create the proper environment, arranges the appropriate seating, sets the agenda or program for the evening, introduces subject matter for discussion, lubricates difficult situations, soothes relationships, takes responsibility, moves things along, attends to details, keeps controversy at a manageable level, adds humor and optimism, comes early and stays late, brings guests into the conversation who previously may have been marginal, handles one thing after another, shifts attention easily, listens well, doesn’t dominate, is at ease with self and others, and, most important, enables the guests to be at their best.
Leadership is not a skill. There are no "expert" leaders, just as there are no "expert" friends or husbands or parents. The more important a relationship, the less skill matters. Leadership is a high art. It is too important to be a skill. It needs to be understood and appreciated for its esthetic qualities, for its gracefulness and beauty, just as we appreciate these qualities in a great athlete—quite apart from that athlete’s contribution to the victory. While we can appreciate them in their own right, in both sport and leadership these esthetic qualities are fundamental to success.
This photo was taken at the Overlap unconference in May 2006 in Monterey, California.
Can you see the stars in my eyes? I’m going to San Diego next week and will be meeting Dr. Richard Farson again! Maybe learn something…
If you’ve never heard of him or his work, go through his website, here’s an excerpt:
Of crucial importance today, he understands that because social situations and environments are so determining of human behavior and achievement, design will be the key element of consulting in the 21st century. Farson is a leader in the field of social and environmental design. In addition to his writings in the area, he was the founding dean of the School of Design at the California Institute of the Arts, twice president of the International Design Conference in Aspen, of which he has been a director for thirty years, and the one Public Director (non-architect) elected to the national Board of Directors of the American Institute of Architects. In 2001 he was appointed a Senior Fellow of the Design Futures Council.