Thought Leadership in Architecture

Written by Charles Nelson - December 11, 2019

thought leadershipThe whole idea of “thought leadership” is so attractive to those who want to see themselves elevated above the rest, or who see that need as a new business opportunity, that it persists and seems to be gaining traction. I, and a few others, sense more than little hubris in donning this Superman cloak, question whether leadership in thinking can be assumed by the “leader”, or must be earned and bestowed by followers.

Those views aside, I thought worthwhile to consider what “thought leadership” meant in the world of design practice. Those thoughts crystallized into three streams: Focus, Communication, and Advocacy.



It seems to me that there are three main foci in design firm thought leadership, which for lack of better terms I will call designteam and client.

Design thought leadership is that of the visionary “master” who sees a design brief in terms of a physical resolution, with the design process the pathway to that shining solution. The atelier exists to execute the design; the client exists to pay for it. Wright and le Corbusier come to mind as examples of this process, but there are plenty of architects who would prefer to design this way – and do when their clients and teams permit it.

Team thought leadership is fundamentally different: the thought leader consciously subordinates her ego to that of her team. The focus is on the team’s ability to interpret the design problem and find appropriate solutions. This thought leadership is focused on building a practice that outlives her own leadership, and is usually successful in that. The most important aspects to this kind of thought leadership are coaching and mentoring.

Client thought leadership brings the client fully into the problem interpretation and solution process. The client is an integral part of the design team, and helps to create the solution.

Most architects I’ve worked with would like to think that they do all three of these simultaneously – but that’s veneer. Peel away the outer layer of the leader onion, and you’ll find one of those three.


Communicating thought leadership:

The other main theme in thought leadership is how to communicate the “leading”. A few design leaders – in my experience about 5% – have such skills in drawing that they can sketch a powerful, appropriate solution straight from the problem, and carry both the team and the client with them. But these are rare individuals; the rest of us have to be able to talk, to write, to wave our arms convincingly in order to communicate our design thinking.

Of course, this approach only works for the design leadership thinking focus; it isn’t necessary for the other two. Team– and client-focused thought leaders have to use other means of communication, such as asking questions and listening.

Listening is the most difficult of all communication methods to master, and is particularly elusive for the design-focused thought leader.


Advocacy thought leadership:

Most architects embrace concepts of some vision of environmental or social responsibility. Many devote time and energy to furthering their particular interests in that sense of responsibility by becoming actively involved in local, state and national organizations and causes of many kinds. Advocacy may be the most “noble” of thought leadership activities, as it generally would be the most selfless. This kind of thought leadership comes down to a simple proposition: You are a thought leader if you are making a discernible difference.

Stop and think about which kind of “thought leader” you are. If you’re not sure, think about how you communicate with your team and your clients. Does the reality of your thought leadership match your vision of your thought leadership?


Charles Nelson AIA, LFRAIA, AECPM

January 28, 2019