photo: William Stewart

Recently, I left the office early to join my family for a night at the movies. After much debate, we agreed to see Lincoln. It was not a unanimous decision, and was met with some protest. But after we left the theater, we all agreed that Steven Spielberg’s depiction of our 16th president was brilliant. I don’t think I was the only one who felt the contemporary relevance of what unfolded on the screen.

Here was a man who was not afraid to pursue with passion, vigor, and fearlessness, in the face of great odds, what he believed was the greater good for the nation, whatever the political and personal price he would, and ultimately did, have to pay. It was the portrait of an extraordinary leader. A reading of history tells us that Abraham Lincoln’s thinking about the great issues of his day was an evolutionary process.

His leadership, too, was a work in progress, right to the very end of his life. As his understanding and knowledge grew, his thinking changed and he adjusted his actions accordingly. This is another crucial trait of leadership: having the capacity to learn from experience, to discover opportunities for change where others see only roadblocks, and to grow.

Perhaps only the most senior AIA members will recall a time when there was a widespread belief that our profession was indifferent to historic preservation; our Honor Awards even created a special category in the early ’80s called “Extended Use.” The category fell away when it was evident that a commitment to America’s design heritage had become an important part of the profession’s DNA. Inspired by the most forward-thinking of our colleagues, who grasped the cultural, environmental, and economic potential of this nation’s rich inventory of buildings and special places, we as a profession acquired the mantle of leadership.

A similar perception reigned until recently, that our profession was not at the forefront of promoting and advocating for sustainable design. This, too, is rapidly changing. Through the influence of thoughtful and dedicated architects, sustainability is no longer considered an option; rather, it’s integral to our daily creative process that is redefining design excellence. Here, too, with the tools of the Institute’s continuing education program and a vigorous advocacy agenda, we are earning a reputation as leaders committed to and capable of creating a healthier, safer, and environmentally responsible quality of life for our communities.

Each generation confronts issues that will affect those who come after them. Within each generation, a small number of voices will be raised to show the way forward. An equally small number will advocate a different course. Most will stay quietly in the middle, hoping that, somehow, things will turn out all right. Yet, as each day passes, I become more convinced we cannot, as a profession, occupy the comfortable middle ground. Whatever the issue—sustainability, land use, accessibility, aging in place, healthy and resilient communities, or a more inclusive profession—when it comes to the magnitude of our responsibility as shapers of the built environment, we must step forward as bold, visionary, and passionate leaders.

Individually, we are not likely to be in a position to bend the arc of history. But, as citizens and as a profession, we can grow as leaders in whatever sphere that circumstance has placed us. Leadership is not granted; it’s earned. Have no doubt: Whenever architects dare to lead with passion and vision, we will make a difference.

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Mickey Jacob, FAIA, 2013 President