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Redesigning Leadership: Design, Technology, Business + Life

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By John Maeda and Becky Bermont

There is a simple saying in Japanese that epitomizes the nature of striving for excellence, “Ue ni wa ue ga aru.” It translates as, “Above up, there is something even higher above up.” To me, it is an eloquent expression of not only an attainable goal in life, but also the nature of human ambition – of constantly wanting to become better.

Becoming better can take many forms. It is easy to take matters into your own hands when it comes to skills like drawing, public speaking, or anything else where practice makes perfect. Advancing your own career, however, is something that is subject to an entirely different set of forces, fraught with politics, relationships, and chance, not all of which are easily controlled.

In my own working life, questions of career advancement had largely been resolved. I had worked my way up to being a tenured professor at MIT, which is a job that I could have kept until I croaked. I had a career as a successful artist and designer, with work in the MoMA permanent collection and rewarding commercial work with Reebok, Google, and other companies. I had a vantage point to see cutting-edge technology be invented and play out before my eyes at MIT.

But two things left me wanting more. The first was my ongoing desire to be part of a winning team. As a professor you are a one-man show, a “lone wolf ” of sorts. And though I was always inspired by the work of my graduate students, I believed strongly in letting them pursue their own research paths rather than my own. I wanted to feel what it was like to go after a big goal with others.

The second was an unshakable belief that art and design are poised to transform our economy in the 21st century like science and technology did in the last century. Innovation used to simply mean smaller, faster and cheaper technology, but I was seeing that that is no longer enough to compel consumers to buy, never mind solve societal problems. Access to ever-increasing data sets, complex scientific discovery, and always-on devices have left us oversaturated with information. It was in the face of this realization that I began work on The Laws of Simplicity and gave a related talk at the TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) Conference.

Shortly afterwards, I received a phone call from a headhunter about the possibility of leading a major art and design institution. I was happy to suggest names of other people the recruiter could contact instead of me, since I didn’t see myself as presidential material at the time. I hadn’t been a department head, dean, or provost at MIT, so I figured I should just “wait in line” as I’d been told. But the conversations continued, and before I knew it I was the sixteenth president of the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD).

I began recording and sharing my experiences, learnings, thoughts and observations via Twitter, and after a couple of years, my colleague Becky Bermont and I culled through the thousands of them, from which we also wrote a book called Redesigning Leadership.

“I am a firm believer that artists and designers have a real role to play as leaders in innovation in this century.” John Maeda

Redesigning Leadership recounts my first years as president of the Rhode Island School of Design, the preeminent school of art and design in the United States. It is a series of vignettes to show how my perspectives as an artist, designer, technologist, and professor are brought to bear in how I lead. I am a firm believer that artists and designers have a real role to play as leaders in innovation in this century.

Whether they explicitly acknowledge themselves as leaders or not, artists often move others to follow them — into neighborhoods, into a new social movement, or even just a dialogue. They do it through the skills that are inherent in their work as professional “inspirers” and provocateurs. Sure, some artists might be introverts and some extroverts, but through their art, they act as creative leaders in their boldness to often express a point of view as the naked truth.

And though artistry doesn’t lend itself easily to a set of instructional principles, my hope is that the series of vignettes below help to show how artists and designers may have more of a place around the management table than often thought.

1. Build from foundations
Artists don’t distinguish between the act of making something and the act of thinking about it—thinking and making evolve together in an emergent, concurrent fashion. As a result, when approaching a project an artist often doesn’t seem to plan it out. She just goes ahead and begins, all the while collecting data that informs how she will continue. A large part of what drives her confidence to move forward is her faith in her ability to correct and improvise as she goes.

This deep confidence in finding your own voice comes from Foundation programs that form the basis of the education at art schools like RISD. In their first year, students are put through the paces of questioning what they thought they know and see, get a deep understanding of materials and process, all in the name of finding the inner vision that guides them as an artist or designer. As an example, students will spend hours on end at the task of drawing a building, reducing the drawing to its essence and discover what is truly there. And it is that same kind of knowledge that leaders need to guide them as they make the tough decisions they are confronted with every day.

2. Craft the team
As I said earlier, one of the great draws of leading for me was the opportunity to build a great team. I was always fascinated by the defeat of the 2004 U.S. men’s Olympic basketball “Dream Team” – made up of so many stars but unable to win. Reflecting on this, I came to understand that selecting great people for your team is like building wooden temples, but in this case the human is the resource.

Let me explain. The Todaiji Temple in Nara, Japan has been able to stand for so long because all of the wood to build it was selected so carefully. The north, south, east and west sides of the temple were constructed from trees selected from the north, south, east and west sides of a mountain, respectively. Nature had pre-conditioned the wood for durability and strength, according to specific conditions.

“Whether they acknowledge themselves as leaders or not, artists move others to follow them — into neighborhoods, a new social movement, or even just a dialogue.”

What I came to through writing my previous book, The Laws of Simplicity, was that the simplest definition of simplicity is to maximize gains while minimizing penalties. A leader can have simplifying forces surrounding them – with the quality and caliber of people you have around you on your team. In short, I’ve learned that an executive’s life is only made simpler by being surrounded by a great leadership team.

Having creative thinkers as part of that team will then only make it stronger. Perhaps the reason why artists collaborate so well is that they learn in the studio model – 10 or more students in the same room for hours on end. Bonded together in a personal space of intimate self-expression, they come into their own through the familial ties of the studio setting, and curated group shows. It’s collaboration to the nth degree and applies to leadership teams as well as artists’ collectives.

3. Sense actively
For an artist, “doing the right thing” isn’t about logically selecting from a set of evaluated options, but is about feeling what is right in the moment. Artists are always trying to get that “five bars of signal” to truly feel the context of what’s around them. I was once told artists make kites to help see which way the wind is blowing. The wind is always there, but kites help you see it. And why would you want to see the wind? Because the wind is always changing.

Computers make it so simple to communicate. It’s just as easy to send a hundred messages to a hundred people in different countries as it is to send an e-mail to a single person in the next city. Social media like blogs, Facebook, and Twitter have made it even easier to broadcast to thousands. Ironically though, with all the communication technologies at our disposal today, it’s still difficult to get a message across to the person sitting right next to you in a reliable fashion.

While I was interviewing at RISD, students told me that they were tired of getting e-mails from “the administration” that spoke about the importance of community, but which at the very bottom would read, “Please do not reply to this e-mail message.” “Surely I can do better than that,” I thought to myself. I believed that it was possible to leverage communication methods I knew well—like e-mail and blogging—in the service of administering an institution.

I’ve come to realize, however, that while technology may make it more convenient to communicate, it doesn’t improve our ability to get a point across. Sure, it’s great to profess your love remotely via Skype or to let the world know about a new app via a blog. But social media doesn’t let you feel what’s on the other end. And so when it comes to communicating to a large organization, an e-mail blast or a blog post doesn’t always cut it. Technology is only part of the solution—the part that refers to the technical question of delivering a message—and there usually are bigger questions to deal with.

First, there’s content: What you say, and whether you’re expressing it clearly, is more important than how you choose to say it. Second, there’s context: Why you’re saying it, and what e-mail boasts in convenience is counteracted by the sensory deprivation of plain text. So the content has to be especially fine-tuned in order to make up for the missing emotional context. I find that it very rarely is.

At RISD I have learned from listening and sensing actively the limits of social media as a day-to-day leadership tool. So for the “digital native” leaders out there, I strongly recommend that you learn how to un-digitize yourself a little bit as I’ve discovered I needed to do myself. Sometimes turning technology off can help to turn more people on.

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4. Fail productively
I’ve recently returned from Abu Dhabi, where I attended the World Economic Forum Global Agenda Council (GAC) on New Models of Leadership. I had previously served on the GAC on Design, and it’s interesting to be within this new space of leadership where “creativity” is usually perceived as not a norm (as it is in the design field). I’m on the council to contribute my perspective on what we can learn from art and design in leadership, and I can already see how leaders across different industries are adopting notions of creativity.

One of the experts on entrepreneurship shared the notion of “failure” as an especially important aspect to manage for a successful entrepreneur where risks are usually enormously high. An innovative CEO shared how he requires all managers who apply to work with him to submit their “failure resume” – because he wants to evaluate their own self-awareness. I shared the art and design world perspective as voiced by Rocco Landesman, Chairman of the National Endowment of the Arts, on how artists teach us how to “productively fail” as exemplified by the critique process they learn in art school. But my absolute favorite was from a member of the council who is in professional sports, who shared:

“Many times leaders in the public sphere are criticized for some mistake or failure as if it was the worst thing imaginable to happen. But as a coach of a hockey team I’ve learned that if you as a leader are not willing to feel any pain, you are not willing to risk anything – you are not reaching high enough and far enough. I tell this to my players all the time – if they’re not failing, they’re not trying hard enough.”

Now I won’t deny it’s been a challenge to be president of RISD in a time of change, as it has been in any organization weathering this economy and the changes it brings. Throughout the ups and downs, I have always asked myself, how do I stay centered and move forward, and be the artist who can productively fail? How do I take in the feedback from the community, who has voiced “no confidence” in its last four administrations in one form or another, productively? How do I be a leader and still be me?

5. Openly critiqued
Taking a page from former NYC mayor Ed Koch, I open some of my meetings with a simple question, “How am I doing?” People often wonder if I’m being facetious, but I’m truly looking for the opportunity to be critiqued—an uncomfortable but effective practice for any respectable artist or designer. For an artist, a critique is the opportunity to see if others connect with the questions that underlie your work, to see if the work’s original intentions and integrity shine through. For designers, it is an opportunity to improve the efficacy of their work by testing whether it is intuitive to others.

I’ve learned that the higher up you go in an organization, the less likely people are to say what’s on their mind, for fear of retribution. However, without provocation it’s impossible to learn new things, and thus I find that direct critique is the fastest way to learn how to improve. My beloved former Provost Jessie Shefrin says, “Critique teaches you to listen hard to others’ criticism so you can listen hardest to yourself.” So, being cognitively jostled, or “brain-dissed,” can sometimes be good for you.

I find that being exposed to many opinions opens the doors of possibility. In the end, it’s about learning to hear your own voice as a leader. Many artists make art of a personal nature; it is how they learn to see themselves on their own terms, not by just what they see in the mirror. The more kinds of mirrors artists can use to see their work, the sharper the image reflecting back at them becomes.

6. Take leaps
Artists rely on their intuition much more than someone who is analytically trained. Analytical people tend to take a complex problem and reduce it to its component parts in an effort to solve it step by step. Artists, however, attempt to make giant leaps to a solution, seeming to ignore all constraints. By making those leaps, they sometimes miss the solution completely. But they are not afraid to miss the target.

“With their ability to sense the context, open themselves up honestly, and be unafraid to leap, fail, and move forward, artists find new uses for technology.”

At first rational glance, it is easy to discount this approach as being simply impractical. I know that in my own transition from engineering school to art school in Japan, I didn’t understand why my new colleagues would simply jump to a conclusion without defining the foundation for their leap. So it often bothered me when they would get it right more often than I. Duchamp’s infamous Fountain—a plain porcelain urinal—seemed ridiculous at first, but its brilliance came from the time and place in which it was presented. Duchamp’s controversial leap to reject figurative norms represented a certain timeliness that artists seem to feel in their bones. So the artist’s intuition is different than merely being random—it’s as simple as paying attention to the moment and being true to what she truly believes.

So much change has happened to our world in the last few decades because of information technology. When people ask me how to cope with these changes, I suggest that they look to artists for inspiration in how they actively apply their intuition. In the end, intuition helps you manage the unexpected, because you’ve been unafraid to feel the possibilities. You are confident that a leap can be taken, and that you will land standing. Artists do it all the time. We aren’t afraid to fail, but we certainly are afraid to end up as people who don’t want to get their hands dirty in the act of trying.

We’ve all seen the business world increasingly crave an approach that balances values with profits. One natural way to do this is to adopt an artist’s point of view; the honesty and integrity that artists naturally bring to their work will be increasingly relevant. Fine artists change how we see the world, and that can have value in the way people do business. Throughout history, it’s been artists who find new uses for technology, uses that the inventors themselves perhaps never fathomed. Artists believe in letting imagination and open, artful thinking lead the way, free of constraints.

In the current moment of economic uncertainty, we are turning to innovation as the silver bullet that will guide us forward. Yet in the eyes of many leaders, innovation seems tightly coupled with Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math – the STEM subjects. Art and design are poised to transform our economy in the 21st century like science and technology did in the last century. We need to add “Art” to turn STEM into STEAM. Throughout history, it’s been artists who find new uses for technology, uses that the inventors themselves perhaps never fathomed. One natural way to do this is to adopt an artist’s point of view – with their ability to own their inner voice, sense the context, open themselves up honestly, and be unafraid to leap, fail, and move forward.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that leaders make sure the organization is operating fairly, joyfully, for the right cause, and with gratitude. And they make sure that thanks are constantly given to all those who have chosen to join the team. I hope you can apply some of the learnings from my journey thus far, for the world is in need of people to participate in leading its transformation.

Maeda, John with Becky Bermont., Redesigning Leadership, excerpt from various pages, © 2011 Massachusetts Institute of Technology, by permission of The MIT Press.

About the authors
John Maeda, President, Rhode Island School of Design. John Maeda is a world-renowned artist, graphic designer, computer scientist and educator, recipiet of the National Design Award and represented in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art. Maeda became presidet of Rhode Island of Design in June 2008.

Maeda previously served as associate director of research at MIT Media Lab. His books include The Laws of Simplicity, and Redesigning Leadership (2011, with Becky Bermont). In 2008 Maeda was named one of the 75 most influential people of the 21st century by Esquire and in 2010 he was called the “Steve Jobs of academia” by Forbes.

Becky Bermont,Vice President, Media, Rhode Island School of Design. Becky leads the Media group at Rhode Island School of Design, which creates print,online and video and media relations strategies for the College, and helps to lead RISD’s work of advocating for the role of art and design in innovation on a national scale. She co-authored Redesigning Leadership with RISD President John Maeda. Becky was previously Director of Sponsor Management at the MIT Media Lab, was a Product Marketer in Yahoo!’s Connected Life group, and a Consumer Research Analyst at Forrester Research.

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