Architects, lead like pelicans

It’s worthwhile considering how a distributed leadership model might better serve the profession. Here’s a look at what it is. [Part 1]

At the risk of calling architects a flock of pelicans, I’m suggesting architects should be more like them.

I’m not one to have a favourite bird, but if I had a top 5, pelicans would be in there. Their beak is freaking awesome. They might look gawky and ungainly on the ground, but when they take off they’re aeronautically awesome. And that’s what architects need to note.

I’ll elucidate. When migrating, pelicans fly in v-formation (or chevron). Doing so to gain greater agility and save energy, they’re work as an emergent system. It’s also a distributed model of leadership and influence. One that’s more powerful and effective than a single leader. All pelicans take their turn at the front, working together towards their common goal. Allowing those with the energy to do so to sit out front with greater responsibility, whilst others who may have previously lead rest in the slipstream. Whilst annual migration is not so advantageous for architects, there’s value for them in a distributed model of leadership and influence.

(In my next post, I’ll explain in more detail what I think an architectural model of distributed leadership looks like and how it might be effected.)

What is distributed leadership?

More traditional hierarchical leadership models concentrate leadership in a single person or representative body. Distributed leadership decentralises and disperses leadership, with individuals at all levels contributing to the success, operation and development of an organisation.

Goals and purpose

It’s desirable to have agreed goals and purpose but not imperative. This shouldn’t be controversial but I don’t think the entire architecture profession should be working towards the same goals. The beauty of the distributed system is that multiple goals and purposes can be taken up. You could think of it as multiple v-formations taking flight and headed towards similar or different destinations. Ideas, or goals, die too often in the quest for consensus and/or uniformity, we want more to succeed. Each distributed singular leadership group (v-formation) must nevertheless work together with the same goals and purpose.

Everyone is typically at different stages of their leadership journey. It’s therefore important to provide clear goals and expectations describing everyone’s roles and contributions. Communicating objectives, outcomes, and expectations of the distributed leadership strategy, clearly. Allowing everyone to align their work with the broader organisational goals and purpose.


Each leadership team member must have the freedom and power to contribute to the goals and purpose. Allowing them to take ownership of their work, giving them agency in decision making and contributing their unique skills and expertise. By leveraging autonomy each team member is given agency to wield more influence within their respective area of knowledge and expertise.


One the great benefits of distributed leadership is it encourages collaboration within the team, as well as without. It recognises that great ideas, expertise and experience come from everywhere. Leveraging the collective intelligence and resources of the team. Doing so generates more creative and innovative solutions, no longer constrained by the values and goals of singular leadership. Freeing the decision making process, contributing to more effectively achieving goals and increasing everyone’s influence.

Collaboration is not a given. It must be nurtured, with team members encouraged and supported in actively participating. Developing cross-disciplinary leadership teams and involving others with alternate perspectives, skills and expertise. By creating the opportunity for collaboration opens up the possibility of inclusivity, breaking down barriers and making more space for learning experiences.

Growth mindset

As described in the Collaboration section, distributed leadership can assist a culture of continuous learning and growth. With many attracted to this leadership model typically seeking out opportunities for professional (or personal) development. Engaging in acquiring new skills, learning and improving their knowledge.

Whilst the leadership team might consist of many with a growth mindset, it’s still importnat to support and encourage the posture. It requires ensuring there are opportunities for learning, workshops and mentoring. Actively investing in the team’s development and empowering members to contribute meaningfully and take on greater responsibilities in order to learn and grow.


Distributed leadership is buoyed by successes and diminished in silence. All contributions must be acknowledged and celebrated. Giving appreciation to those who are showing up and leading. Encouraging those who might have felt uncomfortable or unfamiliar with leadership. Celebrating their contributions reinforces their sense of belonging. Motivating them to continue active participation.


The central to the motivation for decentralised leadership is to increase the architecture profession’s influence. More about that in the next post but I’ll leave this thought here for now:

It’s great to have professional representative bodies, but they can only put out one viewpoint, a singular perspective. It places limitations on the ability to demonstrate broadly the value of architects. Also, representative bodies aren’t in practice, they’re mouthpieces instead for those that are and consequently may not reflect them.

Influence is won through trust and leadership. That’s where distributed leadership becomes a powerful strategy.


There’s a compelling case for the architecture profession to adopt a distributed leadership model. The emphasis of autonomy, collaboration and a growth mindset is eminently suited to and of substantial benefit to the profession. By adopting this strategy the profession can become more influential by leveraging autonomy, collaborations with experts outside of the profession, extending networks, and by skills development.

Indeed, distributed leadership might be the only way to build the profession’s influence.

Image by Ray Bilcliff

Hi! I’m Michael

I’m an architect and coach, helping the professional culture of the architecture profession. I believe the best way to do this is support leadership development.

I’ve worked in architecture for almost 30 years, and ran my own practice for 14 years. I understand architectural practice from the inside out. Fun Fact: my NSW architect’s registration is #10 007 and I have a license to skill.

I help practices work on their leadership team and strategies. Supporting practices to become more open, fluid, and adaptable. Realising the collective energy, passion, and capabilities of their people.

Interested in hearing I can help? Let’s chat about the leadership development of you or your team.
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