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. ~ Excerpt from the essay “Designers as Leaders” by Richard Farson
I was reminded of this essay by a tweet asking if design can offer leadership but when I went looking for the essay I found to my dismay that not only is the hosting site down but The Wayback Machine has not archived any of Richard Farson‘s body of work. This extract is taken from my old blog, where I’d published it back in February 2007. As you can see by the stars in my eyes, I’m a confirmed fan of Mr Farson.
That was taken at the very first Overlap in May 2006, by Steve Portigal. We were part of the original organizing committee and Mr Farson was an extremely respected and active participant in our conversations on business and design.