Leadership – What I Learned from My Father, Aileron and Ali – Part 2

Leadership Image

By Lee H. Skolnick, FAIA,with editorial assistance from Judy Vannais

In Part 1of this post, I mused upon some of the qualities of leadership posed in a recent article on Entreprenuer.com, 22 Qualities That Make a Great Leader.Reflecting on my own entrepreneurial journey as Founder and Design Principal of Lee H. Skolnick Architecture + Design Partnership, a New York City architecture and design firm, led to thoughts about two unique projects that offered the rare challenge to design spaces that actually embody the qualities of entrepreneurship and leadership in their form and content – the Aileron Center for Entrepreneurial Educationand The Muhammad Ali Center.As an integrated design firm, our work includes exhibition and communication design as well as architecture. These three disciplines are often integrated into one project that enables us to practice what we call “narrative architecture” – places that embody the values and beliefs of our client. Through a process of deep immersion, we come to understand the character and attitudes of the project’s owner while taking into account the intricacies of the site and surrounding context, in order to arrive at a design that expresses who they are and what is important to them.

When businessman and philanthropist, Clay Mathile– who turned Iams pet foods from a niche product into a global brand – approached our firm in 2005 to design a non-profit center for promising entrepreneurs in his hometown of Dayton, Ohio, I found myself immersed in an exploration of the meaning of leadership and entrepreneurialism.  Mathile’s vision for Aileron was to create a place of inspiration and reflection as well as instruction where business owners could brainstorm and take flight, an idea exemplified by its namesake: the wing flap that provides an aircraft with lift, stability, and navigability. Through our unique conceptual approach – “design as interpretation” – and intensive collaboration with Mathile and other entrepreneurs, we developed an interpretive program for the project that expresses the evolution and trajectory of a business owner as a “journey towards successful entrepreneurship.” This interpretive program informed every aspect of the design. From the entry gate to the Leadership Hall of Fame, the entire Aileron campus became the physical manifestation of Mathile’s mission.

As interesting as Entrepreneur.com’s 22 traits of great leaders are, when we set out to create Aileron, we interviewed Clay Mathile as well as other entrepreneurs, and found some other key characteristics of successful business owners. Together we brainstormed 13 concepts essential to entrepreneurship, which became our interpretive themes: Individuality, Big Picture, Journey, Dream, Focus, Leadership, Change, Decision-Making, Out-of-the-Box, Nurture, Risk, Perseverance and Passion. Individual spaces were designed to embody each theme as expressed through their unique site, architectural, interior and graphic design, with the totality of the experience referencing and reflecting the “entrepreneur’s journey.”

Recognizing the symbolic importance of Aileron’s namesake, the design incorporates references to it in every aspect of this award-winning project from the signature, “floating” roofs that hover over solid, grounded volumes to the aerodynamic shape of interior dividing walls as well as in the identity design, interpretive exhibits, and interior and exterior signage.

The theme of “taking flight” occurs throughout the campus. For example, from the Boardroom, members have a long exterior view to a sculpture across the pond, symbolizing a future goal or dream to be achieved. The concepts of entrainment and flight are expressed through a series of elegant, abstracted and kinetic bird-like shapes perched at the top of tall poles that move with the passing breezes. The meandering path leading to the sculpture represents the hard work and perseverance needed to succeed.

The following highlights some of the key spaces and experiences we designed for Aileron.


The Entrepreneur’s Journey

The design of Aileron’s sprawling rural site (a former farm) and the arrangement of the interconnected buildings and pavilions that comprise the Center embody the journey of an entrepreneur: on a path that is sometimes winding and sometimes direct, with ample detours for dreaming, action, and reflection. Its bucolic setting is the first element that enhances the sense of retreat from the daily challenges of running a business.

The long, circuitous driveway, which suggests an entrepreneur’s questing journey, facilitates a transition from the work-a-day world to a relaxed, yet focused, environment. This procession is intentionally the longest distance between any two points on the campus and is choreographed with a series of “events” designed to heighten the sense of escape from the routine as one moves from the street to the main building. The departure point for this journey is marked by the Aileron logo we designed, which is incised into a knoll at the campus entrance. The long road twists and turns through rolling hills, skirts a circle of pear trees, and wends through a stand of maples, before the wing-like roofs of the main building finally come into view just above the gentle, green slopes. Approaching the entrance, the structure appears low to the ground, but upon entering members are surprised to find themselves in a soaring two-story rotunda. Open views, use of regional materials, orientation around a pond and connection to walking trails all work to reinforce the building’s relationship to the natural surroundings. Inside, the motif of “journey” continues in an exhibition that traces Mathile’s own road toward successful entrepreneurship, encapsulated in three themes: “Learning,” “Doing,” and “Giving.”



Sweeping views and locally sourced materials of this LEED® Gold-certified project connect the built structures to their surrounding natural environment, creating a seamlessness between exterior and interior that subtly suggests an essential trait of a successful entrepreneur: thinking outside the box. Within the main building, “out-of-the-box spaces” –  open areas with exterior views – are nestled between the workshop rooms to provide members with break-out spaces for impromptu brainstorming sessions.



The “Journey Corridor” leads members from the Entry Rotunda to the Workshops. Its curved form connects inside to outside and is embedded with quotes on the theme of journey, as well as a series of small monitors displaying video montages of nature and animals over the course of seasonal and evolutionary journeys.



Entrepreneurs are dreamers at heart. They need to dream, to fantasize, to imagine things that didn’t previously exist and synthesize them into being.  Without dreaming, without a dream to realize, there is nothing to fuel passion, focus and perseverance.  The notion of dreaming manifests itself in the “Dream Room,” a private, contemplative space cantilevered out over the pond with glass on three sides.

Overhead, a canopy depicting blue sky and white clouds carrying the quote, “Dream no little dreams, for they have no magic to move men’s souls,” leads the eye to a panoramic view of the exterior landscape. Equipped with a variety of means for recording blue-sky ideas about future directions for their enterprises, participants can conceive of and capture their thoughts for later follow-up.



The “Focus Pond” is a large, shallow reflecting pool visible from multiple view points, including the balconies of the private offices above, where members can work on strategy. From their elevated vantage, members can see the word “focus” come into focus in the tile pattern on the bottom of the pool as the pixilated edges of each letter merge to become fully formed at their center.



Near an indoor/outdoor café, a breakout space embodies the concept of change. A custom rough-hewn log bench appears torun right through the glass wall which divides the interior from the exterior. Counter-intuitively, on the inside, the log is close to its natural state, but as it transitions to the outside, its form becomes more polished and refined, suggesting how entrepreneurs must adapt and change in order to succeed.



It’s always a risk to try new things, new ways of doing things, to seek previously unknown objectives and destinations.  People talk about weighing risks and rewards.  Without risk there are no rewards. The “Risk Corridor” connects the Dining Room and the Boardroom. Beneath its glass floor, video images challenge members to cross over what appear to be fear-evoking elements – a river of rushing water, a rocky ravine, fire – each symbolic of the risk-taking required to be a successful entrepreneur.



An outdoor “Passion Garden” provides a burst of passionate color year round. Plants were selected to maintain a perennial red glow in the garden symbolizing the enduring passion that inspires and motivates entrepreneurs to realize their dreams.



The “Leadership Hall of Fame” features noteworthy local, national and international business leaders. Every year, the names of the latest Hall of Fame inductees are added to a glass panel etched with images of migratory geese in flight symbolizing both collaborative effort and individual ideas taking flight, gradually filling the long wall leading from the Café to the Information Commons.


Big Picture

Leadership requires the ability to step back and look at a venture objectively and holistically – to see it from 30,000 feet as from an airplane in flight. This idea is reinforced for members by giving them bird’s-eye views of the city and the surrounding residential and rural areas through super-sized aerial photographs lining the walls of the large multi-purpose space.

The 13 traits of entrepreneurship, the nine mentioned above plus the other four – IndividualityDecision-MakingNurturePerseverance – are inscribed on bronze plaques embedded in a central, anchoring, ceremonial limestone fireplace and chimney in the double height entry rotunda.


As a finished work, Aileron stands as one of the most successful illustrations of our “design as interpretation” philosophy – the idea that concepts can be truly lived, can be manifested as part of the built environment. Aileron embodies Mathile’s mission to create a place where enterprise, education, and inspiration converge to shape the entrepreneurs of the future. It functions both as a center of activity, growth and productivity, as well as a work of art that communicates the ideals, philosophies and intentions of its creators.

I have worked on many meaningful and inspiring projects over the course of my career and have learned something from all of them. Yet my experience in working on Aileron was distinct in that it gave me, an entrepreneur and leader, the opportunity to express through my work what entrepreneurship and leadership really means. Clay Mathile’s beliefs, his values, and his vision – they all resonated with me very strongly.  He believed in what he was doing and saw it as a calling.  He desired success intensely and understood the responsibilities that came with his position.  With the understanding that a successful business enterprise is about more than money, he wanted to help others to achieve their own potential and then give back to society through their efforts.   He saw it as the foundation of our democracy and the American Dream.  It was a privilege and a profoundly meaningful calling for me to help make that lofty vision a reality.


“The Best Me Possible”

In this regard, Clay Mathile reminded me of another inspirational client – Muhammad Ali.A few years before embarking on the Aileron project, I had the incredible privilege of collaborating on the design of the Muhammad Ali Center in Louisville, Kentucky. When it comes to being “the greatest,” it’s hard to do better than Ali.

I worked with him and his wife, Lonnie, for eight years to bring his dream to fruition. His vision for the Center was to create an experience that would inspire people, especially young people, to become “the best me possible.” Like Mathile, Ali wasn’t satisfied with his personal achievements and success. He wanted to do more, to give back, to inspire others. This was his mission for the Muhammad Ali Center: to convey the over-arching themes of his journey, in addition to relating the facts of his story, so that his life could inspire people in whatever their individual pursuits might be. These universal themes – “Training for Life,” “Living Your Beliefs,” “Being a Champion,” and “Making a Difference” – each essential to successful leadership – became the core of the visitor experience.

A leader in his own unique and highly impactful way, Ali embodied many of the qualities that we associate with great leadership.  He certainly pursued DREAMS which grew in scope and global reach as he evolved from imagining himself as the world heavyweight champ to a champion for peace and understanding.  He achieved greatness by PERSEVERING against all odds and training incessantly; by keeping his FOCUS on his goals extremely strong; by thinking OUT OF THE BOX in developing a boxing style that was unconventional and unbeatable; by taking incredible RISKS in going up against his formidable boxing opponents, the U.S. government, and public opinion. He was willing to risk and lose everything to stand up for what he believed in and against what he felt was wrong.  He made DECISIONS that were anything but easy at critical junctures in his life.  He led his life as an ever-evolving JOURNEY and responded to the myriad events that confronted him with CHANGE in ways that illuminated and informed his trajectory from world-class athlete to world ambassador.  In so many ways, Ali embodied the traits that are the hallmarks of greatness and leadership.  Without a doubt, and whether intentionally or not, he became a leader and an inspiration to countless people everywhere, including me.  One can only wonder how these characteristics might have fueled a different kind of path to greatness had he decided to become an entrepreneur.  But I think we can all be grateful that he chose the path that he did.

When it was suggested to me that I might want to review and comment on Entrepreneur magazine’s article on the 22 qualities that make a great leader, at first I wondered why I would want to do this and what I could have to offer on the subject that would be of interest to anyone.  Like many in my field, I became an architect for many reasons, none of them having to do with running a business.  However, it was interesting to me how quickly and reflexively I responded to these traits once I began thinking about them.  I imagine this might be true of many others who pursue a passion and then inadvertently find themselves having to consider myriad issues that come along with developing that passion into a career and an organization.  And then, as I explored in more depth how and why these characteristics have great relevance to the journey we take to realize our goals and dreams, it occurred to me that I have had some key experiences where I came face-to-face with the exigencies of entrepreneurial leadership. Though there were others, the Aileron and Muhammad Ali Center projects were life-changing and affirming events in this regard.  They each brought into the highest relief the critical qualities that can make the difference between moving forward and falling back, between failure and success.

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


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