As the Head of Architecture at Monash, Naomi Stead aims for an affiliative leadership style that helps make space for others and works by building consensus rather than exerting control.


Why did you choose architecture? What attracted you to the discipline, and what do you enjoy most about it now?

I sometimes joke that I made a kind of category error when I chose to study architecture, because I was interested in people’s lives within buildings more than the building themselves. My real interest is in architecture as a setting for experience, and narrative, and the human – quite literally the architectural humanities. I thought that studying architecture, as the stage and setting of human activities, was the way to get to this. So, I joke that I mistook the container for the contained. Probably should have done a bit more research and studied sociology…

But, actually, maybe it was a productive and useful mistake: I persist in believing that architecture as a discipline gives you a unique perspective on the lives and stories and experiences that happen in and around places. These days I like to think my perspective shuttles back and forth between the container and the contained, people and buildings, and sees the effects of each on the other as entirely intertwined. Besides, architecture has such a broad and interdisciplinary base that it’s perfectly possible to bring sociological and anthropological approaches to architectural questions. So, architecture turned out to be a great choice for me. It has certainly led to a hugely satisfying and interesting work life.

What do you do? How does this differ from what you imagined doing when you set out to study architecture?

I am an academic and Head of a Department of Architecture, which means I am a researcher, a teacher, an administrator, a strategist, a tactician, a diplomat, a coach, a cheerleader, a whip-cracker, a care-taker, a care-giver, to some extent a bean-counter, a servant of the university, a person who sets the tone and the culture and also the agenda for a large group of people – around 1,000 students, 35-odd ongoing staff and hundreds of sessional staff, in the larger department.

When it’s going well it’s a hugely satisfying and enjoyable occupation. When it’s going badly it’s unbelievably stressful and burdensome. It’s always demanding – it’s a very intense job, the weight of responsibility is very heavy, and the sheer volume of work can be overwhelming.

When I think about where I am now, and what I do, it’s actually hugely surprising for me to be in this leadership role, because earlier I never imagined that for myself, not in a million years.

I was too pre-occupied with an image of myself as some kind of weirdo, always on the margins, not ‘normal’ or forceful enough to be a leader of people. Also, quite vague, and hopeless with numbers. It’s important to know your weaknesses so you can ameliorate them!

Anyway, this shift in my career was entirely because I had a boss – it was Sandra Kaji-O’Grady – who saw some kind of capacity in me and put me in an (acting) leadership role, and I did that and found it super-interesting. I learnt so much about myself and others, and that really opened my eyes to what contribution I might be able to make in a leadership position. That was a real shift for me – in my own self-image, and confidence, and willingness to consider accepting power, and seeing how I could try to become a force for good. So, what Sandra did for me was to push me outside what I thought I could or should do. Not every mentor or boss does that – offers the so-called ‘stretch assignment’ – and that’s something I have tried to learn from her and offer to others.

The other thing I’ve realised is about authority and authorisation. I would never have actively sought power on my own, and definitely not fought for it. I had to be deliberately placed in a position of authority – which is to say I felt the need to be authorised – by other, more powerful people, and within an established structure and hierarchy. I didn’t feel that I had the personal authority to seize command (maybe I did – but I didn’t feel that) so I really needed endorsement, a mandate, and a structure to work within. So while I really hesitate to talk about gendered trends in leadership, I suspect this might be one of them – that there might be so many potentially great women leaders out there who would never think of stepping up, either because it hasn’t occurred to them, or because no one has specifically given them the authorisation and structure they would need to make it feel possible.

These days I still feel like a weirdo. I think that doesn’t go away, not when it’s been so ingrained for so long. But I can also see how my life experiences have made me the person that I am, and how I can bring that to my current role – through empathy, and the ability to listen, and a clear sense of what my values are and how they can inform my actions and, by extension, the work of the Department. Maybe I won’t be a leader for long, but I must say I’ve acquired a bit of a taste for it now – it’s just such an interesting opportunity to learn about humans and their motivations.

What have been the biggest career challenges and successes so far?

Managing the conflicting needs of work and family has sometimes been a real challenge. In fact, sometimes it’s been unbearably stressful. It’s one thing to be busy and pushed with just work; it’s another thing when your work is full-on plus you have a wife and a young son who need you, and want you, and have a right to your time and (non-stressed, non-preoccupied) attention. We have no family in Melbourne so we can’t rely on that support, we both have demanding full-time jobs, and we try to share the parenting very evenly. So, sometimes it means that everyone is strung out and feeling like they’re missing out. I really don’t know the answer to this – we struggle by.

Another challenge, and this might seem strange, is the way in which things you do and say as a leader can be over-determined – it took me a long time to realise that because of the role, what I might intend as a throwaway line or flippant comment can be listened-to very carefully, and read for connotation and inference, and take on a significance that I certainly didn’t intend. I have to say I find this exhausting, this kind of semiotic excess, where everything becomes too meaningful.

This sensitivity is certainly true for emails as well – something that I have written in haste, while distracted, on my phone, on the train, thinking it’s a brief and friendly but direct message… My god, the ructions that can be caused by a one-line email. And I’m not talking about anything rude or abusive – just a misreading of tone. You have to assume it’s going to be mis-read, and/or spend great care and compose each email like it’s a love letter – and who has time for that? These days I often prefer to pick up the phone.

So, there’s no such thing as a flippant comment (or email) when you’re a leader. And this can be a challenge for me because I can be garrulous and I do like a bit of rhetorical flair – which means I’m prone to hyperbole, playing it for laughs, which I should possibly tone down.

I can see why some people become grey and drab and neutral in leadership roles – it’s a means of risk-management. But I haven’t done that, or at least I’ve tried not to. I’ve tried to stay human, and warm, and genuine, and fallible, so we’ll see how that goes. I met someone at a conference recently and told her what I do and she said ‘Oh! You don’t seem at all like an administrator!’. I took that as a compliment – although maybe it was also a warning.

Have you benefited from mentors (formal or informal), sponsors and/or other supporters? What was the impact?

Absolutely – I have been amazingly lucky in this regard, and the impact has been huge. As well as the example I mentioned above, where Sandra really set me off on a whole new trajectory by suggesting I could take a leadership role, I had earlier mentors who have been invaluable in both my professional and personal life. One of the most important is John Macarthur, who was my PhD supervisor, and later my boss, and has always been incredibly supportive and helped me in ways that I will always be profoundly grateful for. It’s amazing to think I’ve known him for 20 years now, almost half my life – this is so much more than simply a work relationship.

John has been a model of leadership for me too. He’s an absolute intellectual giant, with amazing breadth of knowledge, and I think he has a very strong sense of ethics and a strong moral compass. He’s also super-strategic and politically savvy – but above all he is an incredibly kind man, dedicated to public service and nurturing the careers of others in a way that (I now know) is extremely rare.

So, I would credit John with intellectual mentorship (through my PhD, but also beyond), plus mentorship in how to be a good academic citizen and a good person, plus he was my referee for years and years so he probably helped me get pretty much every job I’ve ever had as well! I know I’ve been extraordinarily lucky.

What is your leadership style? What experiences have shaped this?

Well, I’ve never been at all interested in control – that’s one of the reasons that, earlier, I thought I wasn’t the right kind of person to be a leader. I had a misconception that control was the main game, that leaders have to be those very commanding and dominant people who ‘own the room’ the minute they walk in. Now I know that’s not true at all – there are plenty of other ways of getting people to do what you need them to do. So, that means I’m not a micro-manager – there are so many of them around, but it must be so boring to do that all the time. And laborious – if you’re busy controlling everyone else, then you have no time to think or do your own thing. So, I’m not controlling (I don’t think!) although I do like to be kept abreast of what’s going on.

I don’t want to get all pop-psychology about this but it’s hard not to relate my leadership style to my childhood. My parents were very loving and unconditionally supportive, but they also gave me almost complete freedom and autonomy from a very early age. Maybe because of this early freedom, or maybe just because of my personality, I really can’t stand to be tightly controlled, and I also avoid trying to control others. I think this has had a major effect on my persona as a leader.

I’ve heard my style described as ‘affiliative’ – that is, I try to bring people together (as agents in their own right), to work cohesively as a group, and set a tone that is mutually-supportive. This means trying to involve everyone in decision-making processes – although I’ve come to realise that it’s the job of the leader to listen carefully, consider, and then make a decision about the right path forward. Of course, not everyone will be happy with that. Leadership can be consultative and fair and transparent, but it can’t be a pure democracy – that just wouldn’t work in the university context. It’s been hard for me to learn that people will be cranky with me sometimes, that you can’t please everyone all the time, and if you are (or you’re trying to) then you’re not really doing your job. Probably I need to learn to be tougher on that front – but I was brought up to be a white middle-class woman! Conditioned to be agreeable and amenable and to smooth things over and please others – so it can be pretty hard to unlearn that.

So much of leadership is making decisions and judgements – constantly and endlessly, at every scale from massive and crucial to tiny and seemingly-trivial, and also making decisions about which decisions are trivial and which are crucial, which is not always clear. So, I think the challenge is to make decisions at the right speed – not too slow, but also not too fast, and obviously also to try and make the right decisions, which requires emotional as well as strategic intelligence.

My approach is to try and allocate the right people to do the right tasks, according to their particular talents and capacities, then make sure everyone knows what their task is, and they have the necessary time and support and resources to do it, and let them know I’m there to help if needed, and then get out of the way – send them off to do it, with a pretty high level of autonomy. I like a flat structure and I like to work collegially, as a group of collaborators.

The only way this style works is with a high degree of trust. My people have a lot of agency and freedom (including, for example, with flexible working patterns), but it also means that sometimes people don’t live up to that. I do find it very disappointing if someone hasn’t been entirely honest, or open – probably I need to work on taking that less personally.

It also takes a fair bit of faith to give someone a task, and really let them do it, knowing that you’re going to be the one wearing the blame if something goes dramatically wrong. But I think I usually start with optimism, and belief, and keep a general eye on things. I try to only intervene if it’s necessary.

There are two very useful bits of advice that I read somewhere in the leadership literature. The first links to the two things that apparently make people in organisations most cranky: “why wasn’t I asked?”, and “why wasn’t I told?” It seems to me that you have to ask and tell all the time. A huge proportion of leadership is communication: endless, tactful, careful, timely, consultative communication.

The second bit of advice I’ve read and found useful is that when things are going well, you need to deflect the credit back to your people, and when things go wrong you need to accept the blame. When leaders collect all the credit for themselves, it’s a pretty bad sign, and it’s very demoralising for their staff. Also, I think it’s just a shitty way to behave, even though it’s hugely common practice.

The main thing is to make your people feel seen, and appreciated, and acknowledged. And to not let them feel ignored, used, or taken for granted. If you do that you lose your good people very fast, as they go elsewhere to where they are appreciated.

Over the years I’ve also learnt a huge amount from working under leaders who were less personally compatible with me. This was about learning specific things not to do, and observing what effects these things have on others. But also I realised quite viscerally what it feels like to be working under a style that doesn’t suit me so well. This means I know what that’s like for others in the same situation, and I understand that different styles are going to work for different people.

I had a boss (many years ago, back at the beginning of my career when I was young and naïve) who completely exploited my work ethic and my goodwill, who had me doing most of his work, with none of the credit and a fraction of the salary. So, these days I am particularly aware of that, and it really annoys me when I see people being used – especially when they’re young and bright and female. Of course, the balance is that now, as a leader myself, I need my people to be doing tasks that are pretty demanding and onerous – but I really try to give them the support, the credit, and the rewards that they deserve.

What do you consider to be the key attributes and skills of an effective leader?

The thing about leadership is the two parts – where you’re going to lead (towards what strategic goals you’re going to head, via what route) and how you’re going to lead (how you’re going to get the people and the organisation to all go in that direction). I think there are some people who have the forecasting ability to see where an organisation needs to aim, they have the set of strategic skills and knowledge to see what the path should be – that’s the where. Then there are others who are good at the how – at convincing and coaxing and corralling people along in a particular direction, to keep them moving and staying together as a group. The thing that’s more unusual is to have both of these things – and I think that’s necessary for an effective leader. I’m trying to work towards that, although of course I have a way to go yet.

It’s a commonplace analogy that being head of an architecture school (or any complex enterprise) is like playing chess – you see the overall picture, you have a strategy, you have particular people and resources at your disposal, and you make small tactical moves as part of a bigger agenda. But what’s more interesting to me is what it says about your people, how each of them has a role to play, and each has different strengths and abilities. They can each be effective in different ways, and it’s the job of the leader to see their promise, and to engage and fulfil that, to the benefit of the organisation.

In the same way, it’s beneficial to have leaders with different styles. As in all things, diversity is good – it’s actually a benefit and a strength to have different leadership styles in the same organisation, working together. I think you wouldn’t want only people like me, just as you wouldn’t only want ‘command and control’ style leaders. So, while I find that an authoritarian style of leadership doesn’t work all that well in managing me as an individual, there can be good things that come out of that style of leadership, and it does work for managing some people and some types of project.

What changes – structural and tactical – are needed to increase equity in the profession and discipline?

It was a key moment when the profession finally acknowledged it did have an issue with gender equity (or lack thereof) and that something needed to be done about it. A huge groundswell of women who had previously felt isolated, or like their issues were unique (or their own personal failing) have had the opportunity to collectivise and come together in mutual support. This is a step in the right direction, but there are still a lot of changes needed.

We need to expand definitions of what a ‘proper’ architect is and does – moving it away from a narrow conception of the design or project architect working crazy hours, which is an exclusionary model. We need more types and ways of being an architect, which can accommodate different work patterns and more flexibility.

We also need better basic HR processes – including clarity, transparency and fairness around recruitment, pay negotiation, promotion, and so on. And we need the people who are managing these processes to be keenly aware of equity and the insidious effects of unconscious bias. We need to change processes of attribution and the claiming of credit – buildings are complex things with many authors. Many people contribute to them in many ways, and the profession should actively acknowledge this rather than trying to pin the rosette of authorship on just one lapel. There is really so much still to do, but these things would be a start.

What equity problems does your institution face? What strategies is your institution using to address these?

We have the same issues as many institutions. Although we have a woman Vice Chancellor – which is symbolically important, and she really is a great champion and quite inspirational on equity and inclusion issues – there is still a lot to be done. We have pretty good gender balance among the staff in the Department and Faculty, but locally the senior roles are still dominated by men, and there can sometimes be a rather blokey culture. I have some really brilliant young women working with me but they’re not always aware of how great they are, or not as confident and forthright as I’d like them to be. So, I’m on a mission to help them see this, to support and lift them up, and give them the opportunity to flourish – including through formal promotion processes. This is true of the young men too, I should say – some of them are strikingly selfless and generous and dedicated to the service of others. In those cases, I sometimes have to get them to concentrate more on themselves, to be a bit more self-interested, or rather to always seek the win-win situation for themselves and others together.

We have various careful and targeted HR processes in place to support all this – we are fairly good on affirmative action and representation, through the vigilance of a number of people at every level of the organisation, both in the professional and academic staff. But it’s a never-ending process, and you can’t lose that vigilance, or inequitable patterns can easily creep back in – I’m always aware that unconscious bias is right there in us all.


Naomi Stead is Professor of Architecture and Head of the Department of Architecture at Monash University. Her research interests lie in architecture’s cultures of re/production, mediation and reception. She was the leader of the ARC Linkage project ‘Equity and Diversity in the Australian Architecture Profession: Women, Work and Leadership,’ which led to the co-founding (with Justine Clark and others) of Parlour, an activist group advocating for greater gender equity in architecture. Stead is an award-winning and widely published architecture critic, having written more than 50 commissioned feature and review articles in professional magazines over the past decade. She is presently an architecture columnist for the San Francisco-based online Places Journal, where she writes essays on concepts and mythologies within and without architecture.

Featured image: courtesy of Monash Art Design and Architecture

Additional image: Emma Byrnes. Naomi Stead at the 2019 Interior Futures Symposium, with Evelyn Kwok and Suzie Attiwill.