Lessons In Leadership
John Maeda has had 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). 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.
A lover of learning, Maeda has focused his energy on learning how to be a leader for the past few years. Along the way, he utilized the new technology of 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 microlessons 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.
For John Maeda, how we lead can reflect the changing world that our generation is inheriting, and it is changing fast. The amazing changes in business, technology and design have made our daily lives more complex than ever before. Maeda pointed out that we are missing simplicity, which forms the basis for how he approached learning about leadership as well as his discussion of leadership in this book. The beautifully 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 are “Creative as Leader”, “Technologist as Leader”, “Professor as Leader”, and “Human as Leader”. As such, through Redesigning Leadership, Maeda shines a light on a path to becoming a leader with the traits you have and how those can actually align with traditional leadership traits.
Two additional sources regarding leadership will be discussed to elaborate upon Maeda’s insights. The first, “The Art and Science of Leadership”, outlines more traditional nuances of how to be a successful leader, but which find correlation with Maeda’s thoughts on the subject. The second source, “Transforming Leadership through the Power of Imagination,” follows in line with Maeda’s transformational views of what a leader can be that may not be traditional in our transforming world.
Maeda is an unconventional thinker who looks at matters differently and acts accordingly. In Redesigning Leadership, he gives a refreshing take on, and insightful perceptions into, the demanding universe of leadership while proving first hand that leaders come in all forms from all backgrounds.
Creative as Leader
John Maeda states, “A creative leader is someone who leads with dirty hands, much the way an artist’s hands are often dirty with paint” (p. 9–10). 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.
Maeda points out that not all traditional leaders keep their hands clean. He cites the example of a former President of RISD who, like himself, wanted to experience every aspect of the college. Maeda delivered donuts to the security on campus, worked in the cafeteria, sat in on lectures, ate lunch with students, and more. The former President acted similarly and was much loved for walking the campus halls everyday, even visiting the janitor. When Maeda asked him if he was an artist, or creative leader, he said no. He had been an administrator at a hospital and felt that walking the halls was the only way to keep up on as well as be part of the goings on at the hospital.
Like traditional leaders who are doers, the creative leader must discover a balance between doing and letting be done by others. If this important aspect of leadership is not kept in consideration, annoying micromanagement could occur. Getting too down and dirty means that the leader would be taking away work that’s to be done by the people that you lead; work that they take pride in and are often discouraged when not allowed to continue that work unimpeded.
Creative leaders can also draw upon their experience as an artist. For the artist, learning something new is often, not only a new way to see the world, but also a new way to change it. Maeda and others recognize that artists are natural conduits of change, taking raw materials and transforming them into finished products of expression. Often times the way an artist learns something new is through critiques. Maeda recommends turning meetings into critiques, an effective, albeit often uncomfortable, practice for any artist to transfer to leadership practices. Maeda will begin meetings by asking, “how am I doing?” Looking for honest feedback from his peers must be approached with an open mind. Even if you cannot please everyone, by opening the doors to many different opinions, you become open to many possibilities while learning to hear your own voice and maintaining your own perspective amidst those possibilities.
Any leader must be able to gather the troops, as it were, for their cause or vision. To do so, Maeda has discovered that his intuition as an artist is an important tool. When presenting data to a group of people, they remain only numbers. In order to achieve the emotional push for action needed for a leader to be a leader, a narrative or story must accompany the data. Telling a good story requires intuition about what a particular audience will want to hear and how to tell it in a compelling manner. Intuition allows for the creative leader to rally people for action and to manage the unexpected because they are unafraid to feel the possibilities for positive action, change, problem solving and improvement.
Technologist as Leader
As a technologist, John Maeda understands the many ways in which technology has allowed for more convenient ways of communicating. However, while technology makes it more convenient for us to communicate, Maeda recognizes that limitation that technology does not always improve our ability to get our point across. There are bigger issues that need to be addressed that any student taking courses in communication, business, leadership and much more learn in their first year: content and context are key. Content is what you are saying and whether or not you are saying it clearly. Context is why you are saying it. Learning to understand these aspects of communication is important for any leader otherwise they will be misunderstood.
In addition, technology such as the Internet has made transparency an easier thing for government and companies to present to the public. The White House has a website built on the cornerstone of transparency, publishing many aspects of the day-today happenings, policy initiatives and more for the public to view. However, transparency does not equate to clarity. The White House can present a ton of information to the public, but if there is no way to relate to it, the audience will remain unclear as to why it is important or should matter to them. Maeda recommends using the phrase “for example” often as a tool to achieve clarity because it helps the audience connect with the idea for facts being presented.
For clarity in communication to occur, a simple conversation can often be the greatest tool that a leader has to get their point across even when it is sometimes necessary to broadcast large campus-wide or company-wide e-mail blasts. One of Maeda’s microlesson tweets captures it all in only 140 characters: “The shortest communication path between two people is a straight talk” (p. 31). 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.
Beyond media, social media helps to break down barriers to an extent. Maeda and his colleagues at MIT were 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. However, Maeda learned from experience that social media can often undermine the people in his own chain of command. By hosting an open-sourced blog, Maeda hoped it would be a great tool to be heard by all and receive feedback from many directly. He soon realized, however, that by directly responding to the concerns of students, he was surpassing the people he was leading whose job it was to answer and take actions regarding those concerns, becoming another form of annoying micromanagement. Maeda realized that a leader does not necessarily have any business responding directly, but technology does allow leaders to be aware of the conversation, listening and learning both online and offline to understand the community they are leading.
Finally, Maeda realized that going beyond technology back to one on one discussions and in-person group meetings could only be achieved by pulling people together, and one of the best ways to pull people together is through free food. For thousands of years, people have been brought together in conversation through food and fire. A meal is a catalyst for conversation that can lead to collaboration. By remembering this basic principle beyond the ease and convenience of social media technology, a leader can bring people together in more personal and more productive settings.
Professor as Leader
The transition from a professor to a leader presented more handicaps for John Maeda than most would expect. As a professor, leading class lectures and discussions, assisting students with problems they may be having, and encouraging learning are excellent traits that a professor could utilize as a leader. However, Maeda points out that being a professor is being your own self. It is different than being a member of a team, let alone the leader of a team. In addition, being a leader in name does not meant that people will listen to you or want to be on your team.
Through this challenge, Maeda discovered several important tools for a leader to effectively form and lead a successful team. The first step is to get people to take the big step of just being themselves and joining something larger. To do so, he suggests getting everyone that you want to be on the team in the same room, most likely through offering free food. Any negative emotions in the room towards the vision or towards others on the team will be cancelled out by the positivity in the room, providing the leader with a neutralized area to present their vision.
The next challenge is getting folks to talk to one another so ideas may be shared and the team may function. To provide a comfortable space for team members to communicate with each other, even with the leader in the room, it is important for the leader to give them a chance to start to connect by revealing their own humanity. Leaders have all of the same emotions and feelings as everyone else. By pretending to be all knowing or above it all, leaders will push team members away instead of drawing them in. Maeda rightly points out that we learn best when we are wrong, so to pretend that the leader is always right is unproductive. Additionally, leaders must lead with confidence to build positive momentum in the group and be aware of any gestures that could psychologically impact the audience in an unintentional way.
To form a cohesive team, leaders must see themselves as community enablers rather than community dictators. Professors are enablers of community decisions through debating with integrity. Active, impromptu conversations that speak truth with everyone having the chance to talk and be heard are important, but respect should be maintained. Professors often debate with each other and their students, leaving no stone unturned, and promoting productive conflict. At the end, any new valid discoveries that have been made often present a new possibility for addressing an issue.
Human as Leader
At the end of the day, one trait that everyone has in common and can be used in leadership is that we are all human. We all have our limitations and recognizing those limitations is important no matter what our role is in our community. However, the difference between a follower and a leader is that ignoring those limitations helps us to believe that we can lead. Humility is a noble trait to possess as a human being as well as a leader. Humility shows vulnerability, which connects people to your vision by making you as a leader seem more human. A leader with vulnerability backed by confidence leads positive forward momentum towards those visions.
Every human and all leaders should also remember that there is a difference between ideas and ideals. Maeda states that having ideals is like having a compass that always points to your heart rather than the brain. An individual is free to express their ideas, but a leader should strive to live up to their ideals.
Comparison to other Leadership Literature
Plenty of other leaders over the years have published their views on how to be a successful leader, forging ahead while guiding others. In the article, “The Art and Science of Leadership,” George Anderson wrote his views of what it means to be a successful leadership. He cites that the earliest theories regarding leadership can be lumped into the “great man” theory; the idea that great leaders possessed some core list of traits that made them naturally better leaders inherently. However, the possession of core leadership traits does not actually guarantee successful leadership and, as Maeda points out, many other traits that may not have been viewed as leadership traits before have their benefits in the leadership arena. To be sure though, there are some aspects of leadership that have proved themselves through the ages, some of which Maeda was able to gleam from his years of learning to be a leader. Anderson points out the fundamental task of leaders to possess the ability to create a vision for the future and communicate that vision effectively.
Leaders should also remain out of the trenches to an extent, empowering others to do their jobs and celebrating milestones that are achieved through the team effort. Persistence is an important factor that harks back to Maeda’s recognition that artists are not afraid to fail just as leaders remain optimistic towards their vision even in the face of challenges. And finally, integrity is leading by example, a necessary quality in a leader and any human being. When Anderson asks himself if leadership can be learned, his emphatic answer is “Yes”, which has been proved by Maeda’s experience of learning to be a leader using his traits as an artist, technologist, professor and human.
In another essay, “Transforming leadership through the power of imagination,” Michael Jones discusses a similar view as Maeda, a view that leadership is changing and transforming with the times. Jones states, and Maeda would agree, that, “in the future, leaders will not be remembered for their professional, technical or cost-cutting skills but for their wisdom, empathy, presence, intuition and artistry” (Jones, pg. 1). Strategy and tactics help leaders to be effective, but to be artists they need also to listen to and get a feeling for everything, drawing upon the power of the imagination. Like Maeda, Jones cites the importance of the leader as an artist to expand from the focus on instrumental language for achieving certain goals and outcomes to the expressive power of stories and the authenticity of one’s own personal voice and perspective. It is apparent that leadership has become much more than simply possessing the traits of a “great man” and innovative leaders such as Maeda and Jones are pointing out that the traits we all possess can result in being a successful leader.
John Maeda, the “suddenly” President of the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), viewed his inexperience as a unique freedom from the constraints of traditional leadership traits and an opportunity to learn how his own traits could be used in the new role of leader. Along the way, Maeda learned countless lessons about communication, teamwork, and the importance of holding one’s own sense of perspective. The artist and creator in Maeda encouraged him to lead with dirty hands. The technologist recognizes that, while technology makes it easier for us to communicate with each other, it does not always improve our ability to get the point across effectively. The “own self” professor had to be reconciled with now not only being a member of a team, but the leader of a team, creating a sense of community. As a human, we must know our limitations and ignore them if we can believe we can lead. We must be humble, have integrity, listen, do right rather than be right, follow ideals rather than ideas, maintain a respectful community, and know that it is not a sign of weakness or a mistake to apologize. Leaders do not have all of the answers and they should admit it revealing a powerful vulnerability backed by confidence.
Maeda, John and Bermont, Becky. Redesigning Leadership: Design, Technology, Business, Life. MIT Press, 2011.
Anderson, George. “The Art and Science of Leadership: defining what it takes to forge ahead and guide others.” Canadian Insurance, June 2005; pg. 12–14.
Jones, Michael. “Transforming Leadership through the Power of Imagination.” The Integral Leadership Review, March 2009.
Vincent Triola. Thu, Feb 11, 2021. Redesigning Leadership, by John Maeda with Becky Bermont Retrieved from https://vincenttriola.com/blogs/ten-years-of-academic-writing/redesigning-leadership-by-john-maeda-and-becky-bermont