Baltimore Penn Station, Baltimore
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2020 Reminds Us That Leadership Matters

The year 2020 has brought unprecedented disruption, from a global health crisis; to economic uncertainty; to issues around about race, diversity, and inclusion. Now, more than ever before, we are impelled to act. In this moment, men and women with courage and independence of mind are essential to making progress in the face of change. With leadership based on shared values, empathy, respectful consideration, and vision, we can reimagine a new future — not only for our industry — but for society.

I’ve always been enamored with leadership. I can recall my first few days of secondary school in Zimbabwe, where I grew up, and the first time I watched our school rugby team as they prepared to take the field. And the captain whose sheer presence seemed to make him tower over his teammates as he delivered his pregame speech and looked them each squarely in the eyes.

Later in my high school career, I played on that team. I heard that powerful pregame speech, after which I felt like could do anything in this world. That speech was not a screaming, fiery battle cry. It was a simple, humbling speech about being in the moment. It must have been deafeningly loud, but I don’t recall the sound. I can only remember the sensation of clarity — absolute focus. My team and I had a job to do on that field, and we were going to do it perfectly.

This summer, I had the opportunity to speak on the subject of leadership when I gave the keynote address at the 2020 American Institute of Architecture Students (AIAS) Grassroots Leadership Conference. The timing could not have been more appropriate. There was deafening noise then, too. But this time it was coming from the tumultuous events testing the social and cultural fabric of the United States.

Our society has a pressing need for leadership as these difficult times drag on. We all need someone in our lives to be the captain in the pregame huddle, to clear away the noise and take us back to a simple place where we reengage with our humanity. Right now, we must discern what is important from what is not and act with courage to improve our collective condition.

In our industry, artistic vision is often conflated with leadership. We celebrate cutting-edge ideas and creative designs. But we seldom talk about what it means to wake up each day and lead a team of individuals, whether that’s your project team, studio, or an entire office. And we don’t focus nearly enough on what it means to be a leader in our communities — especially the communities that our work is directly affecting.

Preparing for this talk, I was reminded of a quote from Robert F. Kennedy: “Some men see things as they are, and ask why? I dream of things that never were, and ask why not?”

To the bright young minds of AIAS, I decided to pose some questions in the same “why not” spirit:

  • Why not help to increase racial diversity within our industry by supporting organizations like the National Organization of Minority Architects, the ACE Mentor Program, and many others that guide and mentor young people considering careers in design?

  • Why not encourage your professors and deans to focus program design challenges in communities in need?

  • All of us could use the opportunity that has been created in the wake of the tragic deaths of George Floyd and many others to make meaningful, lasting change not only for Black Americans, but for all Americans. Why not?

Click here to view the full recording of the remarks, and the compelling conversation that ensued.

Once again, I’d like to thank AIAS for the opportunity to give this year’s keynote and for caring so deeply about the world you will soon help build. As this year comes to a close, I hope a new generation of leaders will reflect upon this moment, be inspired to act, and use this crisis as an opportunity to drive meaningful change.

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Vaki Mawema
As Co-Managing Director of Gensler Baltimore, Vaki has created a team-based design culture that embodies creative passion, innovation, and rigor. He is well-known within the commercial real estate industry as an expert and thought leader in retail center and mixed-use design as well as business leadership. Contact him at .