How Artist/Leaders Do Things Differently
A student once asked John, “If RISD is such a creative place, why aren’t we led with more creativity?” That comment has stuck with him. Since both he and our Provost (Chief Academic Officer) are truly artist/administrators (rather than artists-turned-administrators), they have undertaken a quest to redesign leadership is both lofty and explicit. They’ve made a commitment to leading our institution using the principles that RISD’s artists and designers use every day.
I’ve always operated in more traditional management environments, so the advantages (and challenges) of this kind of leadership reveal themselves to me daily. I won’t lie — for non-artists like me, working in this leadership paradigm has taken some adjustment. But it’s an essential part of our collective commitment to leading our organization authentically. Here are four differences in perspective I’ve noticed our creative leaders putting into practice:
- Passion fuels the work. In most corporate discourse, the conventional ideal to strive for is a “balanced life” — one in which the personal and professional are neatly separated and don’t interfere with each other. Contrast this with the conventional picture of an artist’s life — consumed by his or her work, and uncomfortable carrying around an idea until it can be “let out” through creative expression. When artist and administrator combine, the passion that was once channeled into creating art is now poured into leading. The 80/20 rule is not the natural barometer; instead, the assumption is that by choosing to commit yourself to the work of administration, you’ve taken it on as “your work” and chosen to commit to it fully.
- Form and content can’t be decoupled. Predictably, in an artist-led administration, there is much more careful attention paid to visual presentation of information. The first time I made a PowerPoint deck while working for John, atop the list of comments when it was returned was a directive: “Never use yellow text on a white background. Always orange.” It was a shock: I had never had my design edited, nor had my ideas evaluated by how effectively they were communicated visually. When presenting complex information to a community of visual thinkers, though, the how demands as much thoughtful consideration as the what. It’s not just that a well-designed document is more palatable; it’s that the ideas within it can truly be understood.
- Iteration is expected. In traditional work environments, the goal is for careful planning to precede thoughtful execution. Undoing plans that have been approved and set into motion feels like chaos, or worse, a reflection of your failure to plan properly. Viewed through the eyes of a creative leader, though, tweaking a presentation at the last minute or reconsidering the order of an event that’s about to happen is being alive to the moment and in tune to possibility. According to our Provost, iterating on a concept or plan is a lot like teaching — it’s feeling the moment, and responding with real-time agility.
- All failures are opportunities for course correction. Inevitably, though, marks are missed. Just last week, in a meeting I’d carefully set up a month before, a presentation we’d fiddled with up until the moment we entered the room hit like a ton of bricks. Afterward there was the predictable debrief of what we could have/would have/should have done differently, but there was something else as well: excitement. To fail meant we took a risk, and because we did it with intention, knowing what we were aiming for and what went wrong, we could immediately go back to the drawing board and approach it again.
Here is the original post here, by John Maeda & Becky Bermont @ Harvard Business