The leadership you didn’t know you had

The leadership you didn’t know you had
Achieving less hierarchical leadership in architectural practice can seem challenging, but it’s likely you’re already on the way.

I regularly hear that moving from a hierarchical leadership structure in architectural practice is at best too hard, or at worst utopian.

I disagree.

I disagree not only because more distributed leadership in practice is desirable, but also because I see leadership being distributed in practices regularly. It’s just not recognised.

When it comes to less hierarchical leadership, practices already have lots to be leveraged and build upon in their practice.

Project teams

Project teams are regularly given autonomy in the office. Each team member responsible for parts of projects, independent of the rest of the office. There may be hierarchies within the team but often they’re less pronounced. Each member might be taking on different leadership and project roles in that context.

Each team can then be sitting level within the hierarchy of the practice. Often these teams will be design teams responsible for delivering one or more projects. Sometimes team members may sit across numerous teams. Sometimes these teams may not even be responsible for design projects but for delivering something else to the office, whether that’s R and D, People and Culture, Business Development units or something else. And leadership distributed throughout.

Communications and sharing

Digital communication platforms such as Slack, Teams or WhatsApp are active spaces without hierarchy. They’re less intimidating than face to face conversations and meetings. With everyone sharing, learning and most importantly supporting each other and the practice. Importantly enabling everyone to contribute ideas and take ownership of certain aspects of projects or the practice, and delivering a more distributed decision-making process.

Guiding stars

Many practices identify their purpose, goals and principles in what are often titled Vision, Mission and Values Statements. These are the practice’s guiding stars and they’re regularly developed in an inclusive process with the entire practice. Everyone’s input has equal weight. It’s a distribute process.

Not only can this process be conducted in a non-hierarchical way, but it also acts as guard rails for the practice moving forward. Giving guidance to leaders in the organisation and providing a structure to work within, with more autonomy and ownership of their decisions and work.

Roles and responsibilities

Practices regularly give individuals responsibility for areas they’re skilled at or passionate about. One or more members of the office, for example, might be social media wiz’s. Quickly putting together engaging content, or being clear on what platforms to use and how to use them. And therefore given agency to do so without further input, but instead given full marketing leadership.

More junior architects might be empowered to take ownership of specific design aspects or project phases, allowing them to lead and make informed decisions. Doing so with varying degrees of autonomy, but with full agency to make the decisions within given parameters.

In all cases a steeper hierarchy has been devolved into a flatter (not flat) leadership structure. More staff given agency to lead within their own role and responsibility.

Interpersonal engagement

Less senior member of staff involved in a project, might be given responsibility for leading meetings and communicating with all involved (clients, consultants, council, etc). Doing so because of their particular skill, to build their knowledge and experience, or because specific responsibilities are given to each team member. Whatever the reason, it’s not always most senior person responsible for all interpersonal engagement, and indeed this might fall to multiple less senior team members. Leadership is not always coming from the top but throughout the team.


Many practices have a culture of encouraging less senior staff to speak up with ideas, insights or feedback on the practice. Sometimes it’s lip-service to an inclusive and collaborative workplace. Often it’s not. When these voices are heard, considered and acted upon, this is an act of distributing leadership.

A good start

Most practices would have typically adopted one or multiple of these practises as part of their office strategy. Whilst also maintaining a more hierarchical leadership structure. But these practises can be an example to them as to what might be possible if they start to break leadership structure down. They’re a good start. They can be built upon. They can alleviate the fear that leadership change might not work, because some leadership already does.

Good tests

To interrogate whether there’s a level of leadership distribution it’s worthwhile asking a number of questions. Doing so to understand where hierarchy is taking over and where it might be possible to alleviate obstructions and deliver a better leadership structure.

Are there bottlenecks? [Bottlenecks are a sign that the hierarchical structure is not working.]

Are staff engaged in the practice, beyond design project work? [That might be a sign they’ve not been given agency or feel like they have it.]

Is everyone’s voice heard? [What amazing ideas and insights might you be missing in not listening to everyone?]

Is the practice agile and readily able to adapt to changing conditions? [This is often a sign of the limitations of the current leadership.]

Is everyone’s skills, knowledge and experience being accommodated and utilised to their fullest? [If not, what a loss to the practice!]

What would it take?

Finish with a quick thought experiment, ask “what would it take?” It can help you to understand the steps to deliver better leadership and a better practice (which will naturally follow). It might surprise you to see that it’s probably more readily achievable than you think. And it helps you to avoid leaping to “It won’t work.”

It might work.

And perhaps that’s the scariest thing for some.

Image by Benjamin Suter [edited]

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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