In Annapolis, Maryland, in the 1950s, a high school freshman sat at a table of the local Kiwanis Club, having just finished his meal of chicken, mashed potatoes, and peas. He was there for an annual oratorical contest, and in just a few minutes, he would give a speech titled “Freedom: Our Most Important Heritage.” As he watched the first and second contestants take the podium and deliver their addresses, he could feel his dinner churning inside of him. Then it was his turn. Rising from his seat, the boy wove through the tables and took his place at the front of the room. He leveled his eyes at the audience and said, “Freedom, Our Most Important Heritage [long pause] I’m sorry, I can’t do this.”
As he fled the hall, few in the audience could have predicted that he’d be back the following year to win the contest. Fewer still could have predicted that this boy would grow up to become a successful architect, lauded as a gifted public speaker and a natural-born leader. But then, George Dove’s version of leadership has always been a little different.
“Leadership” is a word that conjures archetypal images: an officer commanding troops, a CEO presiding over a meeting, a political figure guiding a nation. With these associations in mind, it’s easy to assume that leadership inherently occurs as a dictate from the top, but George would be the first to tell you that’s not always the most effective case. He may have come a long way since the anxiety of that first Kiwanis Club contest, but to this day, he exercises a healthy degree of humility: he shrugs off praise, doesn’t like to toot his own horn, and values his work for the results it yields others more than for the recognition it brings him. Yet despite his aversion to seeking the limelight, if there’s work to be done, he will step forward to lead the effort. And when he does, he opts to lead through partnership, guiding others in a collaborative process toward consensus for the greater good. It’s a lifelong strategy that has earned him respect and admiration, but more importantly, it has contributed to the success and wellbeing of the people and projects he’s labored for.
Nowhere is this truer than at WDG Architecture, the Washington, DC, based firm in which George is a managing principal. Founded in 1938 by Edwin Weihe, WDG is the oldest architecture firm in the region. In its early years, Weihe called the company Weihe & Associates and ran it with his partner, Virginia Gibbs, at a time when it was rare for a woman to be a partner in a major architecture firm. When Gibbs and her husband relocated, Weihe continued on his own, operating the firm as a sole proprietorship for a number of years before bringing in additional partners. By 1971, Weihe, Black and Jeffries was prolific for its size, taking on prominent projects in areas like Crystal City and Skyline with a team of roughly twelve. And that’s when George Dove was brought on board as an associate.
Twenty-nine at the time, George had already lived an interesting life—one rife with opportunities to develop the leadership skills that would help him rise in his new company. Born in Annapolis in 1942, he enjoyed a fair amount of freedom growing up, despite being an only child. Both parents worked, and though they encouraged their son in his endeavors, they never sought to direct his activities or future. “My parents supported my decisions, but they didn’t put decisions in front of me to choose from,” George recalls. “I was allowed to pursue whatever interests I wanted.” And from those interests, he chose architecture at an early age.
For his seventh-grade shop class, he was assigned the task of designing a garage. Upon review of the completed project, his teacher announced, somewhat prophetically, that George should be an architect. The idea stuck, and later that year when George had to prepare a career paper researching a particular field, he chose architecture and threw himself into the challenge of learning about the profession. “I didn’t know anything about architecture,” he says. “I sought out two or three practicing architects in the city and interviewed them, asking them what the field was about and what my role might be. I even reached out to famous architects, including Frank Lloyd Wright. Once the assignment was complete, I was determined to pursue a career in architecture and never looked back.”
Of course, it would be some time before that dream became a reality. In high school, George discovered what his parents, in their respect for his self-determination, might have known all along: he had a knack for leadership. Though he was a self-professed “nerd” as a teenager, his peers would invite him to be their leader in a variety of capacities. He soon found himself serving as president of his senior class, as well as several other school organizations. “People understood, even at an early age, that I had the ability to synthesize disparate ideas into a coordinated thought process that made sense to people,” he explains. “Plus, I was willing to step up and take over where others were reticent.”
When it came time for college, architecture school was the natural choice, and George chose Penn State because it made the most sense financially. The engineering and architecture program he encountered at Penn State wasn’t top tier, but as is his habit, he opted to make the best of it. He and three other students emerged as leaders of his class, pushing themselves to get the most out of their education through self-teaching and studying abroad at the Architectural Association and the University of London.
When he graduated in 1965, the U.S. was embroiled in the Vietnam War, and like so many young men, George found himself susceptible to the draft. He had a plan, though. To avoid ending up an infantryman in the Army, he applied for a competitive position in the Navy Civil Engineer Corps. He had researched the corps during his senior year and determined that it would be a good fit for an architecture graduate such as himself. The Navy agreed, and he was admitted.
That September, he attended Naval Officer Candidate School in Rhode Island, and upon completion, began several years of active duty in the Navy. “It was a terrific experience akin to another college education,” he recalls. “I had amazing responsibilities for a 23 to 26-year-old.” Early in his service, he was assigned to Alaska, and with his supervisor 1,100 miles away, he had the responsibility to negotiate contracts and change orders with potentially disreputable contractors and their workers. “I was this kid who they tried to take advantage of, but I kept winning,” he remembers.
George also won the esteem of the Navy photographers stationed with him. Though he didn’t officially have anybody working for him, these enlisted men “adopted” him and became “his men,” so to speak—another instance of George being elected de facto leader. When he left Alaska to return to Washington, the men honored him with a special gift: a hizonith, a navigational aid salvaged from an old shipwreck, that he treasures to this day.
Back at the Washington Navy Yard, George’s responsibilities only increased. He was put in charge of selecting architects for Navy and Air Force projects in the region, and architectural giants would sit across the table from him—a 25-year-old newbie to the field—and vie for a job that was his to assign.
In 1968, George left the Navy and went to work at a small firm before enrolling in graduate school. He was accepted to Harvard, but due to timing constraints, he ended up completing his graduate studies at a The Catholic University of America instead. Then, in 1970, he married his wife, Anna.
In 1971, George, a new husband and father to Anna’s daughter from a previous marriage, had a choice to make: stay where he was, in a firm that was not doing well financially, or move on. He opted for the unknown, and that’s when he went to work for Edwin Weihe.
Weihe was innovative and had designed many buildings in the region, but he was considered something of an “outlaw” among purists in the field because he was doing work for “dirty developers.” “Of course today, everybody kills to work for developers,” he laughs. Undeterred by the prospect of doing commercial architecture, George quickly became an asset to the firm—so much so that when he decided to leave the company in 1978 to strike out on his own, they were loathe to let him go. “I was thirty-six years old,” George explains, “and I thought, ‘I’ve been here six years and there’s no room for more leadership in a firm of this size.’ I had been moonlighting with another friend, designing churches and houses, so we agreed to start our own business.”
With that, the two set up shop, and George called a meeting of the firm’s four partners to announce that he needed to explore new options. He offered to stay on as long as was necessary to ease the transition, but insisted that his decision was final. The partners took a few days to talk, and they came back with a surprising offer: they wanted to make George a full partner in the firm, tripling his salary. Still, he declined, stating that there were too many things about the way the firm functioned that needed to be updated and changed, and he didn’t see that happening, so he wanted to try a new path. Their response was more surprising still: they offered George the opportunity to lead the company in the new directions he believed were right. “You can make whatever changes you want,” they told him.
George discussed the offer with his then new partner, and they both agreed he’d be crazy not to accept it. And that was the start of George’s leadership of Weihe, Black, Jeffries, Strassman and Dove.
One of the first changes he made was to draw up a partnership agreement, which officially set up the firm as an equal partnership. By agreeing to the new structure, the partners established a philosophy of governance that removed Weihe as figurehead and instead made him one of five. From there, George began to expand and grow the firm, increasing their office space and employee base and working toward more diversification and outreach. Through it all, the tactic of collaboration through partnership remained the touchstone of George’s leadership style.
Today, the long-term effects of his efforts are obvious. The firm has grown to 150 people in two offices in DC and Dallas, conducting diverse projects around the country and the world. It is a leading firm in seven niche markets, including hospitality, office buildings, multifamily housing, student housing, and senior housing, and operates a full-service interior design group. In addition, it’s begun taking on government work, including designing the headquarters for the US Coast Guard and recently winning the contract to design the National Science Foundation headquarters. “We’re a blend of the key components of commercial and institutional architecture,” George says of the firm’s approach. “And because we’re also planners and urban designers, we’re often asked to take on the master planning of large phased projects where we bring all of our diverse niche components together to create a truly mixed-use environment. Our clients are really the major movers and shakers of the development world, and we love that.”
That George has been a key figure in these changes is indisputable, but partnership is still the name of the game. He is now one of six managing principals of the firm, and all decisions are made by consensus. The relationship between the principals is based on equality and trust. Each person is expected to contribute to the good of the firm, but all earnings go into a communal pot, so if one person has a good year and another does not, financially speaking, it evens out. Their current name, WDG Architecture, is illustrative of the firm’s tendency to underplay ego. In honor of their founder, the name “Weihe” was maintained through two more permutations—The Weihe Partnership, Architects and Planners, and Weihe Design Group—but in 2000, the firm opted to simplify its label to WDG Architecture.
Today, George continues a gradual effort he began in the mid-’90s: reducing his hands-on management of the firm in order to distribute the responsibilities throughout the partnership—a move he views as a strategy for long-term success. While he was once the face of the company and handled the bulk of day-to-day responsibilities, he believes that a broader leadership model will ensure that the company will thrive for the next 75 years, just as it has to this point.
Through it all, George’s spirit of collaborative leadership and partnership has extended to other areas of his life as well. He’s always stretching his time to volunteer to head committees, and these days, he teaches architecture at The Catholic University of America where he received his master’s. He enjoys giving his students the kind of freedom he reveled in as a young man, challenging them to solve problems creatively, rather than directing them. “They love that,” he says. “They might not get it right, but they love that someone isn’t telling them what to do.”
At home, Anna remains his partner in every sense of the word, weathering with him the ups and downs of the economy and his field with pragmatic good humor. Born a coal-miner’s daughter in West Virginia, she left home and made her own way in life, and is, in George’s words, independent and “a consummate leader.” Together, they have their daughter and a son, born in 1974, who donated a kidney to his father in 2007.
In 2010, George was made the recipient of The Centennial Award presented by the DC chapter of the American Institute of Architects, an organization of which George is a Fellow (an honor in its own right). The award is bestowed annually upon an architect who has made “a substantial contribution to the chapter, the profession, and the community” that goes “above and beyond that which is normally expected of an individual.” Edwin Weihe had received the award twenty years prior and said it felt like being “struck by lightning.” For George, it was a humbling moment that represented the fulfillment of his professional career.
Still, given the choice of recognition and applause versus results, George will opt for the latter. “It feels good to be doing something that I know is valuable, and that’s contributing to my firm’s success and further enfranchising my partners,” he says of his life’s work. “I don’t enjoy it so much for what it gives me, but for what I’m able to give others.” For all the time he’s spent in leadership positions, he views himself as more of an enabler than a leader, striving to give people the tools they need to continue on and succeed on their own ideas and merits. It’s collaborative leadership at its finest, and it’s what has allowed George to truly make a difference in the lives of his colleagues, clients, family, and friends.