There’s a story (or maybe something of a myth) that takes place back in the 1960s, when the urban cores of America’s cities were being pulled apart by the interstate highway program. In Washington, D.C., the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Highway Administration had drawn up an ambitious plan to impose a network of freeways on top of Pierre L’Enfant’s 170-year-old plan for the new nation’s capital.

One stretch of highway would have tunneled under the Lincoln Memorial to emerge on a bridge that crossed the Tidal Basin. The planners behind the scheme knew this much: Anything built close to the Jefferson Memorial had to aim for a higher aesthetic standard than a deck supported by a series of piers. So, the story goes, they invited one of the country’s leading design experts to come up with a recommendation.

What an opportunity to design something extraordinary that would leave one’s signature among the capital’s monuments! However, the recommendation was as unexpected as it was decisive: Don’t build anything. Any proposal, regardless of its creativity, would compromise L’Enfant’s vision. Whether or not this anecdote is based on fact, it does illustrate an important point, which is that our work not only has an aesthetic, practical, and economic impact, but what we design inevitably has an ethical dimension. What do we owe the client who pays the bill, and what do we owe the users and the general public who will live with the outcome of our work?

In the case of preserving L’Enfant’s vision, one could say it was relatively easy to do the right thing. But what if taking on a controversial project is a matter of survival for a firm?

Should that historic structure be torn down to accommodate a proposed development being pushed by local government to help spur economic growth; will the beauty of a sensitive site be preserved; is our role to persuade government to mandate storm shelters in schools in regions prone to damaging storms—and, if not successful, to walk away from the project? What are the risks of stepping forward as an advocate for what we believe is best for our community?

Doing the right thing is not always clear-cut, which is why the AIA Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct is a valuable resource. Within its pages are guidelines to consider in our quest to attain the highest standards of professionalism, integrity, and competence. In the end, it falls on each of us to determine the appropriate ethical path when faced with difficult decisions, even when we encounter political pressure, differing public opinion, or special interest groups trying to force their agenda on everyone. That’s the challenge of leadership.

Thoughtfully assessing competing values is the bedrock of our profession. Carefully considering the ramifications of our actions is essential to carrying out our ethical responsibility as stewards of the built environment, not to mention our responsibility to the spirit that motivates and inspires our work culture, whether it’s a small or large firm. Yes, it can be challenging. Yet such challenges are invitations to take leadership roles in our dealings with the design and construction team, our clients, and our ultimate client—the public. The choices we make will resonate long after we leave the jobsite. How we act will determine if communities are healthier, more sustainable, productive, and livable. Dare to be a leader. The public, our communities, and the reputation of our profession are counting on us.

Mickey Jacob, FAIA, 2013 President