Leadership – What I Learned from My Father, Aileron and Ali – Part 1

Image: Lee Skolnick Blog- Leadership

By Lee H. Skolnick, FAIAwith editorial assistance from Judy Vannais


As Founder and Design Principal of Lee H. Skolnick Architecture + Design Partnership, a busy architecture firm based in New York City, there is little time to ponder what it took to achieve and maintain some degree of success over the course of 36 years. A recent article about leadership on Entreprenuer.com entitled, 22 Qualities That Make a Great Leader,inspired some reflection on my own journey as an entrepreneur and leader as well as thoughts about my father, Aileron, and Muhammad Ali.

More listicle than article, the roster identifies qualities such as Inspiration, Integrity and Passion, each accompanied by illustrative quotes from a wide range of entrepreneurs and innovators, CEOs and out-of-the-box thinkers. Perusing the list, I found myself thinking about what some of the qualities on the list mean to me.



My father’s example taught me about persistence. The son of Russian immigrants in Brooklyn, he had worked in his parents’ grocery store as a boy and maintained their work ethic for the rest of his life. As a youth, I worked in his Williamsburg fruit preserves factory, where I observed firsthand what his dedication and hard work yielded. I also saw that when an enterprise is something that you started – and in my case, something with my name on it – every aspect of it is important to you. In a sense, it is a statement of who you are and what you value, so nothing can compromise that.  I understood that I would have to ride out the highs and lows and learn to live with them – to find ways forward through even the greatest challenges and occasional defeats.  If you’re resilient and persistent, you’ll find a way back to success and hopefully learn something from the trials and tribulations.



To my way of thinking, if you’ve done it already, what’s the point of doing the same thing again?  Where are the new revelations?  How do you stay interested and engaged? By constantly looking for new creative challenges, new opportunities to learn. Restlessness is another word for living fully. My father also embodied restlessness. Never content with the status quo or sitting still, he set out later in his career to create an all-natural juice for kids. At a time when sugary drinks were all that were available, he invented JuicyJuice, and with it a whole new, healthier beverage category.


PASSION (#6)  

For me, this is the #1 quality. I wouldn’t be here without passion.  My father would not have succeeded without passion. As a young man with no real idea of what I wanted to do with my life, I didn’t really understand why he worked so many hours and weekends. But when my passion for architecture kicked in, surprisingly, he became a role model. I must have realized, unwittingly or not, that when you’re that dedicated to what you do, time takes on a different character.  You are driven forward.  You do what it takes. I understood that nothing of significance is accomplished without passion. What else keeps you searching and seeking?  What else makes you plow through disappointments, failures, and obstacles?  And what else sustains you in the knowledge that you can ultimately experience such heights of pleasure and fulfillment?  Passion.


FOCUS (#1)

Passion is what motivates you, it’s what gets you started on your path. But there is, of course, so much more to being a successful entrepreneur and effective leader, as Entrepreneur has highlighted.  Passion led me to architecture school, but no one there prepared me for the realities of running a business.  I went into architecture to be an artist and a humanist, but there were many aspects of architecture as an art and a profession that needed to be learned first.  Nevertheless, I was determined to work for myself right from the beginning, so focus, the number one quality on Entrepreneur’s list, was important for me early on. Once you know what you’re trying to achieve – a creative approach, a goal, a strategy – it’s important to be vigilant to clear away anything that will distract you from them.  Stay on the path.  While you want to be open to a range of ideas and activities that can be relevant, you must be disciplined to discern and discard quickly things that will deter you from your focus.



There’s nothing without this.  You must believe in what you’re doing and in its fundamental potential to do good.  And there’s no way to accomplish this if you do not conduct yourself responsibly and with a commitment to the highest level of ethics, and a strict adherence to guiding values.



The axiom that there is nothing new under the sun has a lot of truth in it. While we hope to innovate, to progress and to improve, there is no question but that we are a product of what has come before, what has brought us to this place and time.  We must examine and learn from what has preceded us. We must search for the best that has been accomplished by others and still see opportunities to move beyond – to create new and better realities. We must study and be inspired by the great thinkers, the discoverers in art, science, philosophy and follow in their footsteps to greater heights.



This probably goes without saying. I’m not interested in repeating anything.  Certainly not what others have done. Not even my own successes. I became an architect because I was taught and believed that in order to do it I would have to constantly learn new things and by virtue of that lifelong education, make new discoveries that would move our society forward towards greater meaning and understanding.  That’s the point and process of innovation.



I don’t freak out overtly.  For better or worse – certainly at some psychic and even physical cost to myself – I tend to remain outwardly calm.  I focus on solutions, next steps.  Ways out of crises.  I think that I see extreme emotional reactions as a sign of weakness, and I see my role as being the one to keep others from experiencing panic, frustration, discouragement and disappointment.  I see it as the responsibility of a leader.  But still, I’m not sure that it’s always been the best strategy for my own health or for our firm.



This is the key to personal happiness, to differentiating yourself and ultimately to offering profound meaning through what you do.  Try to find out who you really are, what you believe in, why you do what you do. Apply the same approach to projects. What is their true essence? What can they accomplish? What is their truest path to clear expression?



You may think you’ve got it figured out. That you know exactly what’s at play, how to proceed. But you’re missing a tremendous opportunity to improve what you do if you don’t stay open to fresh perspectives, the ideas of others, information from unconsidered or seemingly unrelated sources.



When you make a decision, follow through with it.  This doesn’t mean that you might not change your mind or course, in ways large or small, but if you don’t make a decision and act on it, you don’t move at all.  And you prevent yourself from encountering things that might cause you to alter your course for the better.



I always say, without a trace of false modesty, that there were many in my class at school who were far more talented than I. And some have achieved great success. But many have gone unrecognized. I don’t know what they’re doing, if they stayed with it or left to do other things. I think that what helped me gain some level of longevity in the field as well as a degree of accomplishment is my natural tendency to communicate a genuine interest in and fondness for engagement with other people. I want to know their interests and hopes, their histories and experiences, our common humanity.  People respond to, and want to collaborate with, people who care about them. It’s not rocket science.



Do I do this enough? Do I know when to give way, to step back, to share control? I like to think that I have gotten better at it. There’s no question in my mind that it is the right thing to do, for them, for me, for us. People give more when they have more ownership of what they do. They become more dedicated and more creative. They learn crucial lessons. It is absolutely critical to success, to forward movement, to sustainability, and to the highest quality work.



You want to create new things, explore new possibilities. If a leader doesn’t project the sense that new things can happen, how will anyone else be willing to take the leap? Combined with passion, persistence and focus, positivity completes the formula that allows for big achievements.



This is a nuanced trait. For me, it implies the ability to see into a situation and uncover its true essence. Having immersed yourself, you can begin to understand how those salient characteristics can point you to ways to embody them in your approach, your creative concepts and your process for developing a project. Without those insights, I feel like you’re just doodling or decorating and I can’t do that.


Musing on Entrepreneur’s list, other traits that I have found essential to success as an entrepreneur and leader sprang to mind, many of which became evident for me while working on one of our projects – Aileron, an entrepreneurial education center and retreat. My firm is unusual in that we practice integrated design, which means that our work is not solely architecture, but also includes exhibition and communication design. Often these disciplines are integrated into one project, which offers us unique opportunities to practice what we have come to call, “narrative architecture,” places that embody the values and beliefs of the client. Through an understanding of who our client is and what’s important to them, we develop a storyline for the project that is expressed in its unique architectural design and ultimately, the total experience of people in the spaces.


The Aileron Center for Entrepreneurial Education is the physical manifestation of founder Clay Mathile’s mission: to create an environment for promising entrepreneurs to retreat from the daily challenges of running a business in order to focus on big-picture thinking, brainstorm strategy, and interface with their peers. Through our unique conceptual approach– “design as interpretation” – we developed an interpretive program that expresses this mission and could underpin all design investigations and solutions. The interpretive program emanated from immersion into Aileron’s mission and an in-depth study of entrepreneurship, which revealed that the evolution and trajectory of a business owner can be seen as a dynamic odyssey. This inspired our vision of the totality of the Aileron experience as a “journey towards successful entrepreneurship.” In close collaboration with Mathile, an entrepreneur and philanthropist, we identified 13 concepts essential to entrepreneurship as interpretive themes: Individuality, Big Picture, Journey, Dream, Focus, Leadership, Change, Decision-Making, Out-of-the-Box, Nurture, Risk, Perseverance and Passion. Each theme was given an architectural space or treatment and the journey through them gained forward momentum through dynamic arrangements of exterior, interior and graphic design elements.


In Part 2 of this post, I reveal in detail how our design for the Aileron campus came to embody the journey of the entrepreneur and also what I learned about leadership from another inspired and inspirational client – Muhammad Ali.


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