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Portland Architecture: Leo MacLeod's new book offers self-help for an industry in transition.


SUBMITTED IMAGE: BRIAN LIBBY - An image of the cover of "From the Ground Up," by Leo MacLeod.As I began a recent video conversation with Leo MacLeod, author of a new book about leadership in the building industry, "From the Ground Up," I noticed a pair of framed drawings hanging on the wall behind him.

They were MacLeod's own charcoal sketches, made during a drawing class, of his elderly great-aunt and his recently graduated son. The artworks had nothing to do with the book, yet they seemed to say something similar: follow your passion and, no matter what your age, embrace the new.

In what's been branded the Great Resignation, employees are quitting their jobs in unprecedented numbers, which may seem counterintuitive given what a deep recession the pandemic caused. Yet it's not really a mass resignation. The pandemic has given many the courage to change their careers, and the normalization of remote working has meant even geography needn't stop one from taking a job far beyond commuting distance.

That means MacLeod's book arrives at an apt moment: when the mood for reinvention is ripe.

"It's really about asking yourself, 'What do I want out of life? What's the right move here? Is this going to get me closer to my goals? I think that's worth figuring out," he says.

In "From the Ground Up," MacLeod tells stories of many former clients: architects, builders and engineers who sought meaningful advancement in their careers but didn't know where to go or whether to stay put, or who had already been promoted but felt overwhelmed, unsure of their ability to manage and lead others.

"I continue to meet so many people who need this stuff," he says. "They're stressed out. Their health is suffering. They don't know how to be intentional about their life. They're just saying yes to everything, and they don't feel like they have any say in it. They don't have any sense of power."

Of course there is no one-size-fits-all answer. But MacLeod believes one overriding message applies to us all: what he calls finding your mountain.

MacLeod came to Portland as a young man from his native Hudson, New York, in 1977, hitchhiking across the country. A house painter who wanted something more, he began a side career in freelance journalism that led him to a degree from Portland State University, then years in fundraising (for OMSI), advertising (Nerve, with clients including the Trail Blazers), then marketing and PR for architecture and engineering firms like Mackenzie Glumac. But MacLeod continually found clients asking for guidance beyond communications, into career counseling. He realized these disparate jobs all led him to one mountain: helping people write their own story. Which, in most cases, is not just about the job but about work-life balance: the time to work and the time to sketch.

Even so, MacLeod's most important lesson in the book may be pragmatic — that it's not all about you.PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP - Brian Libby

"The art of becoming a leader is mediating what you want with what other people want, landing in the sweet spot between what you want to do (passion) and what the firm and market are willing to pay for (need)," he writes in "From the Ground Up."

Yet as MacLeod talks, my eye returns to his drawings, which didn't advance the author's career but, in their way, gave him clarity. "Take a moment to reflect on the greatest accomplishments in your life," the book continues. "How much was it about the reward at the end, and how much was it about the discovery of what you're capable of doing?"

Brian Libby is a Portland freelance journalist, critic and photographer who has contributed to The New York Times, The Atlantic and Dwell, among others. His column, Portland Architecture, can be read monthly in the Business Tribune or online (

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