The Journey of An Architect Learning How to Be An Artist

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Sep 302011

The Grand Vision of the Architect Ready to Be Executed!

For most of my life, I have operated from a leadership philosophy/paradigm and a set of practices that cascade out of the notion that the role of a visionary leader is to be solely that of an architect. The prevailing thinking that has influenced my leadership training and practices flows from a Newtonian, mechanistic worldview in which predictability, creating plans and programs to produce order, and determining the end outcome are the key objectives. From this perspective, people can be viewed as cogs in the machine which can be manipulated to get the desired result, or seen as replaceable pieces to be discarded when no longer productive. An effective leader’s job is to come up with a big vision, to cast that vision to a group of people, to find the people with the necessary skill sets to execute that vision, and to implement the five year plan to bring that vision to fruition. This approach to leadership does bring about results and seems to work.

Yet we are entering a time when our Newtonian mechanistic worldview is colliding with other realities. Discontinuous or random change happening at an accelerated rate is making it more and more difficult to have long range, rigid plans.  The realization through chaos is that we are not as in control as we think we are – just look at the fluctuations of the stock market in the last month. There is a growing awareness that systems/organizations are not machines, but a network of interconnected relationships where even little decisions can have great impact on the whole – look at the grassroots revolutions in the Middle East in the last year. If you want to reflect more on some of these ideas, I suggest Margaret Wheatley’s book, “Leadership and the New Science: Discovering Order In a Chaotic World”.

This collision of worldviews has given me an opportunity to complement the leadership skills of an architect by learning another way of leading. There are some who in reaction to the extremes of present and past forms of leadership are proposing no leadership, or anarchy.

Vision Flows out of the Imagination

Vision Flows Out of the Imagination!

What I’m discovering is that I need to learn to lead like an artist alongside my penchant for being an architect. Now I’m not much of an artist when it comes to painting or drawing. Although, I’m not too bad at sketching stick figures or randomly throwing paint on a canvas! I love art…just come look at my house sometime. I am learning that art is a way for us to get in touch with our longing for beauty, a portal to help us catch glimpses of the eternal, and a conduit for the creativity embedded by God in our imaginations to be unleashed. The art of leadership is not just casting a vision but creating contexts for others to unlock their imaginations, and together put strokes of the vision we see on the canvas. As leaders we are to create the borders to the canvas which are a few values and practices that make it safe for people to explore and express the vision they carry in their imaginations of what a better future would look like.

Creating Together

This means we as leaders have to give up control of what the end picture will look like, which, if we are really honest with ourselves, no person can determine anyhow! The borders or boundaries around the canvas keep us from tipping over into the abyss of rugged individualism – everyone doing their own thing – or the top down power politics where only the few most dominant or gifted get to paint on the canvas of vision.


Here are some questions to ponder as you contemplate learning to lead like an artist:

  • What does the desired future that brought us together look like?
  • Who needs to be at the table to put a stroke on the canvas of our painting of a desired future?
  • What are the values or practices that will make it safe for us to explore and paint together?
  • What borders or structures will complement the painting we are creating together? 

Life Lessons Learned Climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro

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Sep 092011
This summer as part of the rites of passage coaching I do with parents

Getting High on the View

and their kids, I climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, Africa with my son Jonathan and my brother Steve and his son, Ben.

Gung Ho and Ready to Go

Two nagging questions that you face while preparing to climb a mountain like Mt. Kili are: “Why am I paying big bucks and investing all that time to inflict pain on myself by climbing this mountain?” and  “Am I going to make it?”  Couched in these questions  are the the seminal questions we all ask whenever we are faced with an opportunity or challenge that will require risk yet great reward on the other side.What I have found is that the journey of climbing a mountain is a metaphor for life. That is why mountain climbing is such a great rite of passage experience for parents and kids.

The Challenge of Mt. Kili

Here are 7 life lessons that we learned on the mountain:
  1. GO SLOW TO GO FAST: On the first few days of the trek our sons were blazing the trail ahead of us grey-beards at a torrid pace. I kept saying to the lads, “This mountain will teach you to go slow to go fast!”, but to no avail. That is until the last night when we made the last push to the summit.  Altitude and -15 C  temps became the great equalizer. The two young studs were no longer out there leading the pack. At one point we thought the youngest member of our expedition wouldn’t make it to the top. Where as earlier in the trek he had boundless energy, he was now in agony, swaying and staggering under the affects of altitude sickness with every breath laboured. Yet slowly, at what seemed like a snail’s pace, we all made it to the summit…with guess who at the front 🙂  IN WHAT AREAS OF YOUR LIFE DO YOU NEED TO SLOW DOWN? WHERE IS THE TEMPTATION IN YOUR LIFE TO TAKE SHORT CUTS THAT WILL COST YOU IN THE LONG RUN?

    The End Goal Within Reach

    The axiom often quoted these days says, “It’s all about the journey, not the destination.” Though I appreciate the idea that we need to take time on the trek of life to enjoy the landscape, vegetation and each other’s company, which we did, I can’t imagine climbing Mt. Kili with no intention of reaching the top.  Having and reaching one’s goals are important. Yes, sometimes the task or the mission can be so all consuming that relationships suffer, and we miss out on living fully in the moment. Yet somehow on the mountain, we learned how to live in the tension of enjoying every minute of every day, and yet pushing each other on and pressing through to reach our end goal. We had some belly aching laughs as watched how many times we had to pee on the mountain because of all the fluids we were drinking. As we huddled in our tents at night under the clear, star-studded African skies, we treasured the rich conversations we shared about the mysteries of a woman, our fears, and our hopes and dreams for the future. Just as rewarding, though, was the profound sense of accomplishment and exhiliration we all felt at making it to

    Working Hard to Reach the Top

    the top of Mt. Kili. Imparting to our sons the life lessons of setting a goal, of doing the planning and preparation to attain the goal, and then working hard to achieve that goal was worth every penny. On top of that the personal pride we felt as dads at seeing our boys reach their goal, alongside the simple pleasure of  being and bonding with our boys made the journey and destination worth it. ARE YOU ENJOYING THE SIMPLE PLEASURES OF YOUR JOURNEY? WHERE DO YOU NEED TO SET SOME GOALS TO FULFILL YOUR DREAM?

    Made It!

  3. IT TAKES A TEAM TO LIVE THE DREAM: We were blown away at how many porters and guides we were assigned to climb the mountain: 14, including two guides and two cooks.  At first we thought this was overkill. Yet when we were trudging up the mountain gasping for air as we watched these incredible porters whiz by us wearing flimsy tennis shoes, carrying 50-70 pounds of gear sometimes on their heads or necks, we realized we may not have made it without them. What a gift to do this climb with my son Jon, my brother Steve, and his son Ben! They were just the right team to share this experience. WHO ARE SOME FRIENDS OR FAMILY THAT YOU WOULD LIKE TO PURSUE A DREAM WITH?
  4. OVERCOMING OBSTACLES IS PART OF PURSUING ANY DREAM WORTH REACHING FOR: One of the most poignant memories of our climb occurred on the final night of the summit ascent. We started the climb up to the top at 12am. Right away we noticed that Ben, my brother’s son, was struggling with the effects of altitude sickness. He was having a hard time breathing, which was

    Overcoming Obstacles to Reach the Top

    compounded by a slight case of asthma he had been diagnosed with in the last year. He kept saying that he was sleepy and every step forward took all the strength he could muster. I was so impressed watching my brother Steve walking behind Ben speaking words of encouragement and at times literally pushing Ben up the mountain. At one point my brother, concerned for Ben’s wellbeing, asked the guide whether they should turn back. The affable guide turned and said, “No, Ben is a strong young man and he can make it.”  Ben was able to overcome and we all made it to the top at 6am, albeit with our water bottles almost frozen solid and our toes and fingers feeling a little numb from frost bite. We were rewarded with a glorious sunrise on the way down. WHAT SEEMINGLY INSURMOUNTABLE OBSTACLE IN YOUR LIFE DO YOU NEED THE COURAGE TO OVERCOME?

    The Reward


    5. CELEBRATE YOUR VICTORIES : It is hard to put into words the euphoria you feel when  you get to the top of a mountain. Perhaps it is simply the lack of oxygen that makes you feel a little giddy, but I think it is that sense of fulfillment, joy, and feeling truly alive, even though bone weary, cold, and feeling the aches and pains in parts of your body that you never paid much attention to. We were truly elated and proud of our boys and their accomplishment. WHAT SMALL OR BIG ACCOMPLISHMENT IN YOUR LIFE OR THE LIVES OF THOSE AROUND YOU DO YOU NEED TO CHOOSE TO CELEBRATE?  CELEBRATING BUILDS CONFIDENCE IN PEOPLE TO RISK AND FACE FAILURE.

    WooHoo...WE DID IT!


    6. CHEER ON  THE NEXT GENERATION: As I get older I realize that my role is to be a cheerleader for the next generation, encouraging them to dream big and go for it. Hopefully I will get to tag along. As was evident on most of this trek up Mt. Kili, our two sons had far more energy, vigour, and faster recovery rates than us dads.  We were constantly being passed by them on the trail. Rather than trying to compete with them, we encouraged them to lead us on up the mountain. The next generation needs us to coach them, create space for them to explore, risk, and yes sometimes fail, and most importantly to be their best cheerleaders and champion their dreams. WHO IS A YOUNG PERSON IN YOUR LIFE THAT LOOKS TO YOU FOR MENTORING? CHEER THEM ON, AND WHEN THEY ASK, PASS ON YOUR LIFE WISDOM.

    7. SQUATTY POTTIES KEEP YOU HUMBLE AND HUMAN: Have you ever tried to squat over an open hole on the side of a mountain in the dark to do your business? What I learned is that you have to be pretty good in geometry and have strong quads to be successful in your mission. From first hand experience, if you position yourself to0 far forward or to0 far back, you will surely miss the target! Besides that, squatty potties are not the place to catch up on your reading, as after a minute or two of crouching, your thighs start burning and cramp up…and yes, make sure you bring toilet paper with you as there is no guarantee that it will be provided, and if you have no toilet paper you find yourself in a very awkward position 🙂  WHAT IS KEEPING YOU HUMBLE AND HUMAN THESE DAYS?

    If you like you can take a look at the youtube movie of our climb below.


    Mission Accomplished- Uhuru Peak - the Roof of Africa @ 5895 metres