Structure and Space: the architecture of leadership

Opera House (1)

Art and science are often regarded as opposing concepts, where art is associated with creativity and imagination and science with order and system. Even our wonderfully complex brains are sometimes described in right and left terms, relating to our artistic and scientific dispositions.

Yet some of humankind’s most extraordinary minds held the two in perfect harmony. Leonardo Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa smiles benignly over his extraordinary anatomical drawings and inventions of flying machines or solar power. But Leonardo’s less famous cousins do similarly each and every day. The scientist practises art when s/he imagines, experiments and finds solutions. The artist practises science through the use of composition, perspective or colour.

Architecture is one disciple that most obviously strikes the balance between aesthetic and technical elements. The beautiful cathedrals of Europe draw the eyes and mind heavenward in a synergy of form and function.  The mesmerising wonders of ancient Egypt have defied time and the elements. Contemporary treasures like the sails of the Sydney Opera House rest safe in harbour.

While not even rating as a novice in my knowledge of architecture, it seems to me that these examples all do something extraordinary. They are magnificent structures which both take and make space. Structure and space – these two architectural dimensions at once give shape but enable room.

And so it is to leadership, likewise an art and a science. The two elements of structure and space are fundamental to effective leadership.  Leadership is about providing the structure and shape, whether through developing the systems and processes which support people and organisations or, less tangibly, through developing a vision of what the future might look like.  But it is structure not as constraint or demarcation, quite the reverse. Space in leadership is not about absence but about giving others opportunity and room to move. It’s about the freedom and autonomy others have to explore new ideas and to find new solutions.

The “architectural leader” understands that the point of structure is to make the most effective use of space.  Leadership reaches its somewhat ethereal best when the structure is so refined as to be invisible – and all that’s to be seen is the space.

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