The future of architecture is not hierarchical leadership

If architectural practices are to thrive and embrace opportunities in the face of unprecedented challenges, learning to embrace agile leadership is a great place to start.

Question: What does leadership look like when effectively address the immediate and nascent challenges in and threats to practice and the profession?

My previous two posts Architects, lead like pelicans, and Leadership for the future, focused on the benefits of distributed leadership for architectural practice. When we drill further into this form of leadership we find agility. Hence I’m all about how architects might embrace leadership agility here.


The leadership model and frameworks outlined here are in design development. This post represents my current thinking and forms part of my process to test ideas, understand them better and in seeking feedback ( I want also to acknowledge the influence of McKinsey in some of the thinking here, it’s forming a springing point for the work I’m developing for architecture practices. As always it’s an iterative and evolving process. I’ll be writing more on the blog as my thinking and rethinking continues.

Agility why

Organisations adopting agility in work and leadership have found many benefits across numerous aspects of their business: decision making is improved and speedier, better work done faster, and more engaged teams. [1] Adopting agility may also sound risky, yet agile organisations “learn to be both stable (resilient, reliable, and efficient) and dynamic (fast, nimble, and adaptive)” [2] Doing so requires a solid armature stating goals, identifying structures and defining processes. With more dynamic elements hung off the solid armature, allowing rapid adaptation when faced with challenges and opportunities.

Finding your agility

In New leadership for a new era of thriving organisations, McKinsey outlines 5 critical shifts to rethinking leadership and becoming more agile: beyond profit to impact; beyond expectations to wholeness; beyond command to collaboration; beyond control to evolution; and beyond competition to co-creation. Let’s consider them in the architectural context.

Beyond profit to impact

or Focus on purpose.

Purpose drives many architecture practices. Research by McKinsey also shows 82% of employees believe it’s important for their company to have a purpose. I’ve seen other research showing this figure is higher for Gen Y and younger generations. As the external challenges mount identifying a purpose that all staff can embrace and be motivated by will effectively become compulsory. Teams will unite under a common goal, focussing on something they care about and want to see realised. Purpose elevates the work and drives it further.

Beyond expectations to wholeness

or Showing up authentically and vulnerably

In the post(ish) Covid times, most people better appreciate the importance and value of connecting at the human level, sharing values, beliefs, hopes, and fears. This requires fully seeing people. And fully utilising their skills, experience and knowledge to realise their full potential. The role of leaders leading by example here cannot be over-emphasised. Modelling vulnerability and building a psychologically courageous space for all, so people may fully contribute to the team. Leaders in support of the team being the best versions of themselves and doing their best work.

Beyond command to collaboration

or Organise as partners and teams

Collaboration and teamwork might seem an obvious attitude to architects but many still get this wrong. Command and control structures utilised by many practices create bottlenecks and overwhelm – especially at the top of the hierarchy. Handing others agency to do the work alleviates responsibility, supports networked leadership and allows agility in leadership. Requires trust from senior leaders (or managers), letting go and empower others. Building the capacity of the teams and the practice.

Beyond control to evolution

or Working with a coaching mindset

Leaders need to encourage their team to learn from each other and exposing them to new ways of thinking and learning. Supporting individuals to discover ways to work and contribute, as well as in assisting in dispelling limiting beliefs. Leaders embracing uncertainty. Encouraging experiments, and equally celebrating successes and failures as an opportunity to learn. Outcomes rather than KPI’s.

Beyond competition to co-creation

or Creating value through an abundance mindset

Focus on creating value for all stakeholders. Your stakeholders might be your clients, but also staff, consultants, the community, and so on. Think deeply and strategically to find value, possibility and opportunity. Explore and find social connection. And most of all develop a mindset of creation and abundance, identifying the possible instead of the impossible.


Transforming a practice and adopting an agile distributed leadership model takes time. It might be daunting. It can’t be forced and can only happen through an emergent process of inclusion and ownership. With senior leadership supporting, nurturing and encouraging their team throughout the process. With change embraced individually and at their own pace. A clear consistent culture is a must. A culture not only understood but embraced.

“People like us do things like this” – Seth Godin’s definition of culture.

Let’s get real and let’s get creative

Recent conversations I’ve had have emphasised how challenging architectural practice is. Unreasonable deadlines, poor fees, and seemingly no time to think about let alone adopt change. It’s easy for me to advocate for agile leadership, but it’s another thing to know how best to adopt it. However what I noticed in these conversations is a predisposition for stories about “we don’t have time”, “that won’t work”, “it can’t be done”. No solutions, all problems. As Bruce Mau might observe, “Fail to design and you design to fail.”

Agility wants to be creative.

If anyone is well placed to adopt a creative practice in their leadership, it’s architects. The adoption of agility and distributed leadership into practice is a design problem. Creatively thinking of things to try (experiments). Architects generally don’t put down pencils, screw up the first piece of butter paper and exclaim the project is impossible. They’ll end up with a pile of ideas and sketched experiments before they reach the point of defeat. The same mindset should be brought to adopting agile leadership. Come up with experiments, try them, learn and iterate. If an experiment is easily reversed, there’s little to lose and everything to gain in trying. Failure is a learning process bringing you closer to understanding and success The little time, and perhaps cash, required is worthwhile investment.

An agile conclusion

This is all work in progress. I doubt my commitment to this agile distributed leadership framework will wane any time soon, but my thinking might. I can see the challenges facing the profession, they’re clear and present, and coming at practices apace. They require a shift in leadership style, a shift in the culture. I firmly believe embracing distributed leadership and agility will help practices navigate turbulent times to emerge stronger. Adopting this leadership model might be daunting, requiring time, effort, and a clear consistent culture, architects are well placed to do so.

I’m confident embracing agile leadership will help practices thrive, find new opportunities and address the challenges of architectural practice. I would love to hear about where I might be wrong, what I might need to rethink or what I might have missed. Hit me up with your thoughts. Can’t wait to hear them:

[1] McKinsey, “Building agile capabilities: The fuel to power your agile ‘body’”,

[2] McKinsey, “Agility: It rhymes with stability”,

Picture by ᗋ ᗊ [cropped]

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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