Leadership as Architecture

A path alongside an ancient building with simple columns to the right

Metaphors are a powerful tool for conveying meaning to an audience. A simple metaphor can do more to communicate an idea than reams of literal verbiage. Metaphors not only help to communicate the content of an idea but they also help us remember that content. They serve as hooks upon which we can hang our mental data.

One metaphor often used in the literature of organizational development is “architecture.” It is most often used to describe the hierarchical structure of an organization: who reports to whom and how information flows throughout the organization.

For this post, I want to use the metaphor of architecture in a different way. I want to use it to describe the functions of leadership within a group or organization.

The main function of architecture is to make sure that a building has the support that will make it safe and durable.

I was walking down a sidewalk in Buenos Aires one afternoon and just as I rounded a corner turning left onto another street, I heard a crushing roar and was confronted by a plume of dust and debris as though a giant beast had sneezed from inside the building I was passing. I later found out that what had happened was that they were pouring cement and the structure that held the forms gave way and collapsed. Several men died in that accident. The structure was not sound.

So how does this apply to leadership?

One function of leaders is to provide support for their followers. In the terminology of architecture, there are four types of supports: the arch, the column, the beam, and the balcony. Each has a distinct function and each of these functions has a parallel in leadership.

The Arch spans a space between elements of the edifice.
Leaders function as an Arch by connecting people. These connections can be within the organization or can connect people within the organization with resources outside the organization. Connecting people so they can get the job done is a major responsibility of leadership. Some questions leaders should ask are: What are the spaces in the organization that need to be spanned? For example, how does the marketing department connect with the research and development department? How can the organization help its people span these spaces? What policies need to be in place to ensure that these diverse components of the organization communicate?

The Column transmits the weight of a structure above to a structure below.
Leaders do this by empowering others. When all the weight is held up by the upper structure, the building is weak and easily toppled. Distributing that weight to the lower structures means allowing others to carry the weight, which implies empowering them to make decisions. Some questions leaders should ask might be: What decisions am I making on my own that I could delegate to others? What training do people need that will enable them to take on more responsibility? What attitudes and values need to change in the organizational culture so that more of the weight can be distributed to the lower structures?

The main function of the Beam is to resist bending.
Leaders do this by making sure the organization has a clear set of values and ethical principles and then by embedding these into the organizational culture through policies that ensure compliance. We have all heard horror stories of companies that have collapsed not because of market pressures or antiquated services and goods but because of ethical lapses. Questions a leader might ask in this realm are: What do we stand for? What values do we espouse and are we living up to those values? What can we do to make sure that all employees adhere to a high standard of business ethics?

Balconies are platforms that project from the walls of the building and serve the purpose of ceremonial display or aesthetics.
Leaders serve as balconies when they celebrate the achievements of the organization and when they give recognition to high performing employees. Balconies also expand the living space of a building. They provide a place for friends to gather in a context that is not work-related. When leaders provide these opportunities they are helping their people build relationships.

As you think about these metaphors, ask yourself: Which architectural functions am I good at? And which ones are weak? How can I improve? How can we build a more secure and durable edifice for the future?

provides consulting services for churches and organizations. Contact Dr. Waddell today at gregwaddell[at]leadstrategic.com to discuss the needs of your organization.

Credits
Photo by Schwoaze. Photo available at Pixabay under CC0 license. Image modified for size and space.

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