Frances Hesselbein Calls for Leadership at Grassroots
Grassroots keynote speaker asks the AIA to lead, build alliances in a time of social change
by Russell Boniface
Summary: Frances Hesselbein, founding president and chair of the Board of Governors of the Leader to Leader Institute, gave a rousing keynote address on February 22 at the 2008 AIA Grassroots Leadership and Legislative Conference in Washington, D.C. Hesselbein is a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1998 for being a pioneer for women and diversity for her role at the Leader to Leader Institute, formerly the Peter F. Drucker Foundation for Nonprofit Management, and as chief executive officer of the Girl Scouts from 1976–1990. Hesselbein discussed the importance for architects to be leaders of social change and to build alliances with other organizations.
“Serving the way you are serving is a calling,” Hesselbein told attendees. “We are called at this moment to redesign a society. Everyone in this room is a leader of the future, and we have to define leadership for ourselves on our own terms.” Hesselbein called on the AIA to undertake a leadership imperative. “Leading well is the best gift architects can give back to society.” She pointed out that leadership is a matter of how to be, not how to do. “We spend most of our lives learning how to do, and teaching other people how to do, yet in the end it’s the quality and character of the leader that determines results.”
No time for nostalgia; leadership for a changing social sector
Hesselbein pointed out that the AIA can be an agent of social change that can face leadership challenges within an age of change and cynicism. “We must exercise tough discipline in moving innovation across the Institute, knowing the best way to manage change is to create it,” she said. “Change creates a new dimension of performance. There is no time to negotiate with nostalgia. Our rapidly changing turbulent times don’t fit that neat and tidy message. You and I can challenge the gospel of the status quo and the assumptions of the past, keeping in mind only what is relevant to the future: our beliefs, those we serve, and those who wait to be served in this new world that architects and their partners will build.”
The Grassroots session reflected the destiny of the AIA, Hesselbein noted. “It’s the destiny of a great Institution, the destiny of an indispensable partnership of great professional leaders. I am deeply honored to be joining the inspired architects of our country in a powerful partnership. Trust and mutual respect are palpable in this room. Peter Drucker called the nonprofit sector the social sector because that is where we meet the social needs of our people. Your example can help the nonprofit, social sector see itself life-size.”
Hesselbein underscored her call for social change through partnerships by revealing that recent studies show 50 percent of U.S. children will not receive a high school diploma—500,000 children in New York City alone. “These are not invisible children. To the people of the AIA and our associates, these are our children. We cannot sustain a democracy if we do not educate all these children. Who in our society will light that fire? You and I know the answer. Our organization is going to find partners who will light that fire because the day of partnership is upon us. We would like to share what we have and what we are with the AIA.”
Diverse organization of values; think outside the boxes
Citing the AIA as an organization of values, Hesselbein believes the AIA can be a leading organization in redesigning society. “Because of your history and leadership, there are beautiful structures all over the world that deliver a powerful message about your culture, beliefs, and values. Our times call for leaders with a moral compass that keep the faith and keep an organization’s vision, mission, values, and soul centered and aligned."
A diverse, circular organization is an important goal for the AIA to continue to pursue to send a powerful message, she added. “Remember the little guy who sat at the top of the pyramid, looking down at his people?” Hesselbein asked. “And they looked up. That hierarchal boxed system is gone forever. We need to disperse leadership right across the organization. You and I have the courage to change the tired, old hierarchal boxed system in favor of a flexible, fluid circular management system of the future. We can develop leaders at every level.”
Building alliance to address diverse communities
Hesselbein maintained the need for collaboration among organizations, referring to it as the imperative of building alliances. “It is a shared imperative, leading beyond the walls,” she explained. “This requires together developing leaders of change and leaders of the future to lead organizations. We are on a journey of transformation, and our fellow travelers are those we serve, and those waiting to be served. Our mission is a country of healthy children, strong families, good schools, decent housing, safe neighborhoods, and work that dignifies—all embraced in a cohesive community that cares for its people.
“I think you and I share this mission. I have a sense of urgency that I think architects share. We have to build a community outside the walls as energetically as we build an organization within the walls. All of us share the responsibility to change lives, to move from success to significance. Providing equal access to opportunity, growth, education, and development is a shared leadership imperative in a diverse population. The day of the Lone Ranger is over.”
A journal and a torch
“Waiting to be introduced, I had an idea,” Hesselbein described near the end of her address. “What if we all kept a journal and called it ‘Structures of Our Lives’? Every time we see a beautiful structure that moves us, we write about it. You and your predecessors have expressed the beliefs and values of your profession—you inspire us. February 2008 is a time with challenges greater than ever before. It defines new challenges, but the opportunities that lie ahead to make a difference are far greater. We are called at this moment to redesign a society.”
Hesselbein closed by quoting playwright George Bernard Shaw, who wrote that life belongs to the whole community, and that life is a splendid torch to burn as brightly as possible.
“Ten years from now,” Hesselbein concluded, “when the history of this great American Institute of Architects is written about your work, practice, and community engagement and collaboration, may they write of you: ‘They held a splendid torch. The future called, and they responded.’”