Redesigning Leadership Criticism
John Maeda has held a variety of careers and successes throughout his life as an artists, designer, technologist, professor and human being. One career that he did not expect was “suddenly” becoming President of the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) (Maeda, 2011). Having never held a leadership position before on any large scale, let alone of a prestigious institution, Maeda has faced many challenges, challenges that were not helped by becoming President in the midst of one of the worst financial crisis in decades. However, without experience being a dean or president, Maeda was not restricted by the old entrenched ideas of what a leader should be. Instead, he was in a unique position to be free to improvise and bring fresh insight into what leadership is now.
Maeda focuses his book on learning how to be a leader. He utilizes the technology of Twitter or tweeting to help him crystallize and share the many lessons of this intense learning experience. Tweets are a form of microblogging with posts limited to 140 characters that are viewed by an individual’s followers. Over 1,200 tweets, or micro lessons of Maeda’s, became the focal point for his book, Redesigning Leadership, to see what macro lessons could be gleamed from them once aggregated and expanded upon (Maeda, 2011).
For John Maeda, how one leads is impacted by the rapidly changing world which is impacted both by technology and globalization. These changes have made daily life complex. Maeda points out that individuals are missing simplicity, which forms the basis for how he approached learning about leadership as well as his discussion of leadership in his book. The simplistic framework of Redesigning Leadership is laid out in chapters based on different aspects of his own experiences that could be drawn upon to be a successful leader, aspects that have not been traditionally appreciated as leadership traits. These chapters include “Creative as Leader”, “Technologist as Leader”, “Professor as Leader”, and “Human as Leader” (Maeda, 2011). As such, through Redesigning Leadership, Maeda shines a light on a path to becoming a leader with the traits you have and how these traits are impacted by specific concepts such as creativity and technology.
To fully understand Maeda’s approach to leadership once must understand how Maeda is defining leadership. For example, in his chapter “Creative as Leader”, Maeda defines the creative leader as “A creative leader is someone who leads with dirty hands, much the way an artist’s hands are often dirty with paint” (Maeda, 2011). In this sense, by utilizing creative traits, a leader can truly get involved with the nitty-gritty aspects of problem solving where necessary. The creative leader differs from the analytically trained leader when approaching a problem or an issue. Analytical leadership involves breaking down the problem into multiple parts in the attempt to solve each aspect in order to solve the whole. A creative leader, like artists, jump right in, gathering data as they go without a plan. To many, according to Maeda, this may not seem like the logical thing to do. However, the essence of the creative leader is making the right decision in the moment and not being afraid to fail.
This redefining of leadership is based mainly on Maeda’s interpretation of leaders with specific work ethics and qualities. This can be seen when Maeda defines the “Technologist Leader” (Maeda, 2011). Maeda posits that technology has formed a new form of leadership through the use of digital technologies such as social media and email which tend to promote transparency and therefore more honest communication. According to Maeda, technology has allowed for more convenient ways of communicating. One of Maeda’s micro lesson tweets captures it all in only 140 characters: “The shortest communication path between two people is a straight talk” (Maeda, 2011). Unlike large e-mail blasts, emotion is not lost and the person who is being communicated with directly is not only hearing what is being communicated, but also being heard when it is their chance to respond. Maeda contends that social media helps to break down barriers in communications and provides a level playing field for communication. Maeda was very excited when Twitter came out because it presented a seemingly even playing field for everyone from stars to normal citizens to present their points of view within the confines of microblogging.
While “Redesigning Leadership” is well-written and well-organized there are many aspects to the purpose and focus of the book which need to be addressed. The primary criticism of this book is that it tends to lack uniqueness or originality. Maeda appears to be taking leadership practices or technologies and applying them as a new form of leadership. For instance, social media is not inherently a leadership trait. It may be a practice or tool for leaders but it does not constitute as a leadership style.
When Maeda discusses the creative leader and how this leader is learning the many aspects of the job by moving through the organization and communicating and even helping with jobs outside the leaders purview; this seems to be nothing more than a restatement of the idea that leaders need to have an understanding of core competencies within and organization.
Perhaps the largest criticism is the idea that leaders are founded or born out of social media. The connection between Twitter and being a leader hinges on being absurd. While using social media could possibly assist in communication within organizations it does not define a leader. In fact, the use of social media could possibly hinder and obstruct leadership and organizational goals. The use of social media, as Maeda suggests, means allowing workers and organizational stakeholders to voice their concerns and ideas in a collaborative and transparent environment. However the reality of using social media in this manner seems to contradict Maeda’s assertions. In contrast to Maeda’s ideas is the growing number of cases involving employees and employers suing over social media (Rashid, 2010). Many of these cases involve employees being fired for something they posted on their personal Facebook page that offended the company. But what one can discern from these examples is that many employees will use social media as way of voicing their concerns or complaints. This is obviously not the intended use of the company Facebook page but the possibility of it occurring is likely. There are many unanswered questions with social media with regard to its true value. Currently, there are no studies to provide this evidence. Mostly the value given to Facebook in this manner is anecdotal or assumed.
While Maeda points out several interesting aspects or tools that may help leaders such as social media and communicating and learning from the workforce, these concepts hardly constitute a redesign of leadership. What is lacking most from this book is the basic idea of what constitutes leadership how this leadership how it is being reinvented. The utilization of technologies such as social do not add to the understanding of what an effective leader is or how they should be. Other than using twitter there seems to be no practical application of the ideas the Maeda presents.
Maeda, John and Bermont, Becky. (2011). Redesigning Leadership: Design, Technology, Business, Life. MIT Press.
Rashid, H. (2010, March 30). Employers using social media to monitor employees: Risks and liability . Retrieved from http://www.natlawreview.com/article/employers-using-social-media-to-monitor-employees-risks-and-liability
Vincent Triola. Tue, Jan 12, 2021. A discussion of “Redesigning Leadership,” by John Maeda Retrieved from https://vincenttriola.com/blogs/ten-years-of-academic-writing/a-discussion-of-redesigning-leadership-by-john-maeda