Identify and rise above load-bearing assumptions

What the skyscraper can teach us about leadership

Credit: Andrea Desantis

Linda E. Ginzel

Linda E. Ginzel | May 30, 2017

Sections Strategy

In 1872, a 28-year-old apprentice draftsman named Daniel Burnham opened an architecture firm with his good friend, John Root. Burnham and Root would soon become one of the finest architectural firms in Chicago. 

Among the firm’s best work is the Monadnock Building, in Chicago’s Loop, at the corner of Dearborn and Jackson. If you have time, or when you tour Chicago, I hope that you will see this building. There’s a very good coffee shop there, and a hat shop, and a great, old shoe-repair business. If you go to visit, pay particular attention to the walls. They are 6 feet thick, almost 2 meters, at the base. They had to be that wide to support the weight of the 16-story-high building. 

For thousands of years, buildings had to have thick walls because the walls carried the weight of the entire structure. The higher the building, the thicker the walls had to be. The Monadnock Building represented an amazing architectural achievement: it was the tallest load-bearing building ever built, and it was the tallest office building in the world. John Root called this building his “Jumbo.” It was his last project because he died suddenly of pneumonia while it was under construction.  

But the Monadnock Building was a great achievement that also represented the limits of an age-old concept. It made sense that the walls had to be heavy and strong in order to hold the weight of the building. But with load-bearing walls, a building can only go so high. As the ambitions of city planners and residents rose, so did the desires of architects and their clients to build even higher. But how could you build a really, really tall building without building really, really thick walls? 

A man named William Le Baron Jenney came up with the answer. Jenney is widely recognized as the father of the American skyscraper, and according to Chicago lore, he had a breakthrough idea when he observed his wife placing a very heavy book on top of a tall metal birdcage. The cage not only supported the weight of the book, Jenney could see that it could have easily supported a whole stack of books. A stack of books piled high and balancing on a birdcage—what an image. 

The assumption that walls held up a building dominated for many years and limited architects’ progress.

Jenney introduced the idea of a complete, steel skeleton, and he built the first fully metal-framed skyscraper in Chicago in 1884. Just as his wife used a birdcage to support the weight of a very big book, Jenney used metal columns and beams to support his building from the inside.

With Jenney’s new framework, limits on the height of buildings changed. Walls became more like hanging curtains made of glass, and columns within the buildings bore the structure’s weight across the foundation. Buildings began rising to impressive new heights, and together with the development of plumbing, electricity, and elevators, and most importantly with the invention of the elevator braking system, the sky was literally the limit.

The strength of an inner framework

If you go to the top of the Willis Tower (the old Sears Tower) or any other famous skyscraper on a tour of Chicago, you will see much more than an extraordinary view. You will see the power of abandoning long-held assumptions. 

The assumption that walls held up a building dominated for many years and limited architects’ progress. Their load-bearing assumptions quite literally served as an upper bound to the height of the buildings they could design. Jenney’s vision to use metal-frame-core construction was brilliant. It represented a completely new way of thinking about the source of strength—the strength of an inner framework. 

This story demonstrates the combined power of shedding a default assumption that weighed people down with making a major conceptual shift, which, in this case, provided architects the strength they needed to build higher. 

Many of us face load-bearing assumptions, perhaps about management, strategy, finance, or leadership. For example, you may assume that the economic world is a zero-sum game. Or that some people can systematically beat the market without any inside information. Or that debt is a cheaper form of finance because it is less risky. Or that issuing equity is bad because it dilutes earnings. You may even assume that some people are natural-born leaders while others are not, as opposed to holding the view that leadership is a choice. 

Shedding assumptions is not an easy task because many have served you well in the past, and there is risk in abandoning them. Yet one of the most important skills that you can acquire is a willingness to question your load-bearing assumptions and make a different choice, when necessary. 

Just as a skyscraper’s strength comes from its core, the clarity, vision, and support for your own framework must come from your core. There is no blueprint for your future.

Now, there is a second thing that is important for you to notice about skyscrapers. In my classroom, we speak often about the frameworks that allow us to think more complexly about business issues across industries, economies, and geographies. When I teach leadership, I emphasize building our own personal frameworks. When we create our own structures, and reduce our reliance on externally provided ones, we increase our ability to handle ambiguity. 

Creating our own frameworks can help us to be wiser, younger, and to learn more from everyday experience—and what we learn can better inform our choices. Frameworks can help each of us create a better future.

Just as a skyscraper’s strength comes from its core, the clarity, vision, and support for your own framework must come from your core. There is no blueprint for your future. 

In architecture, structural integrity is established during the planning phase and built into the foundation. William Le Baron Jenney taught us to build up by building from within. 

You need that same kind of structural integrity. Build from within. Build your frame with strong values. Build with unselfishness, kindness, and curiosity. Build with open-mindedness to new ideas, with compassion, and with a sense of fairness. Your own inner framework will determine how high you can go. I hope you will continue to rise above your load-bearing assumptions, and keep building a strong, inner framework to ensure the integrity of all you do. 

Linda E. Ginzel is clinical professor of managerial psychology at Chicago Booth. This essay is adapted from the speech given at the 86th Executive MBA Graduation Ceremony at Chicago Booth this past March.