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Leadership Preparing the next leaders - five lessons learned from reimagining a golf course

Craig Applegath is a principal at Dialog, a North American design firm.

Recently, nine emerging leaders in architecture, landscape architecture, urban design, health policy and related fields gathered in Toronto to reimagine a municipal golf course as a place of public well-being that can also mitigate the impact of climate change. Their experience has important leadership lessons for all of us.

Peter Drucker, a leader in the development of management education, once said that “the best way to predict the future is to create it.” Now, more than ever, we need to actively create the future we want. At Dialog, we see our mission as helping to create a better future. We are investing significant time and resources to help prepare emerging leaders in design and one of the ways we are doing this is through the Dialog Design Residency in honour of Tom Sutherland, the co-founder and managing principal of the firm who died in 2015.

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Each year, the residency engages nine of the most promising young graduate students in Canada in the disciplines of architecture, urban planning, landscape architecture, engineering, health policy and public engagement. We give them an opportunity to come together for a week in one of our studios to explore an important design challenge that aligns with our firm’s mission: to improve the well-being of our communities and the environment they share.

This year’s residency focused on a hypothetical redesign of the Dentonia Park municipal golf course in Toronto. Our nine residents explored the intersecting problems of climate change and climate refugees, and a lack of affordable housing and community space. Some of the ideas developed included: mitigating the impacts of climate change through the restoration of the Taylor-Massey Creek ecology and provision of a flood-accommodating wetland; and embracing the surrounding newcomer community by turning the golf course into a public park and the pro shop into a pop-up community centre.

Most importantly, the collaborative process helped the residents develop a valuable set of leadership skills. Here are five key leadership take-aways from this year’s residency:

1. More minds are better than one: The residents learned to collaborate effectively, breaking down the silos of their disciplines. They spent an afternoon at comedy theatre Second City in an improv and team-building workshop where they learned that language has a huge impact on collaboration. For example, the simple use of “yes and,” instead of “yes but,” can make all the difference in effectively building on others’ ideas.

2. Learn when to lead and when to follow: The residents told us it was critical to learn both how to lead and how to follow. All of the students were chosen because they were leaders in their fields, so the challenge was not in learning how to lead, but rather, when to lead, and when to pull back and follow.

3. A compelling vision inspires and ignites the imagination: It became clear to the residents that they needed a truly compelling project vision to spark the imagination of the community and generate productive input. One of the boldest, simplest and least expensive ideas was to take down the chain-link fence that surrounds the site, transforming a once inaccessible golf course into a very accessible neighbourhood amenity space.

4. Effective leadership demands effective communication: For any idea to have real impact it must be effectively communicated. There are two types of communication that leaders must be good at: effective communication with your collaborators, and effective communication with your audience. One of the most important lessons learned by the residents was the fiendishly difficult challenge of stripping down a presentation to its bare essentials.

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5. Developing strong leaders requires good mentorship: The residents discovered that leadership is a loop: effective mentorship is essential to becoming an effective leader, and being an effective leader means also being an effective mentor.

Looking back over the design residency’s intense week of creativity and learning, it’s clear Mr. Drucker was right: the best way to predict the future is to create it. The evidence for this is in the insightful and innovative planning and design ideas developed by the Tom Sutherland Design Residents and, more importantly, in the leadership lessons the residents clearly embraced – lessons that will help them shape our shared future.

This column is part of Globe Careers’ Leadership Lab series, where executives and experts share their views and advice about leadership and management. Follow us at @Globe_Careers. Find all Leadership Lab stories at tgam.ca/leadershiplab.

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