Companies & Industries

Leadership as a Creative Act


Why leave a cushy job for a challenging one? The need to engage the artist within, according to Harvard Business writers John Maeda and Becky Bermont

Posted on Redesigning Leadership: March 17, 2009 12:25 PM

When John took the job as president of RISD last year, he kissed tenure goodbye. He left a cushiony life at MIT's Media Lab with a large research budget, a fully self-directed agenda, and true job security and traded it in for a 5-year contract, fundraising pressures, and a board to answer to. To his professor peers, he seemed nuts. What was driving him to take on something so much harder, when he'd just reached the point when the long dues he'd paid were about to pay off?

For those who knew John as an artist and designer, not a professor, there was a different concern. What about his work? When and how would he have time to create? This one seemed to bother him a lot more, as it does many researchers who give up their research to become an academic administrator, or engineers who grow out of coding and into management. The unfortunate rule of climbing up any organizational ladder, be it corporate or academic, technical or creative, is that getting more responsibility often means leaving what made you a success behind.

For me, the trade-off was easier. At the Media Lab, I negotiated the complex relationship between academia and industry. That was a challenge I could take with me to RISD. As someone who's grown up in the Free Agent Nation of the private sector over the last 15 years, I was taught that there's always a careful balance between opportunism and loyalty. Just as layoffs can happen at any moment, if a better job comes along, no boss or colleague who truly supports you will fault you for making the jump and taking it. For me personally, management is what I was professionally trained to do, so a chance to do more of it didn't have much of a downside.

For both of us, though, there was the undeniable pull of ambition and the chance to do something big that we believed in. There was a golden opportunity for John to be an outspoken advocate for young artists and designers everywhere, to make a case for creativity in the world as the leader of the pre-eminent art and design school in America. But there were also negotiations and questions—about identity, about art, about freedom.

Now, six months into our new posts, many of these questions have started to reconcile. As RISD's provost Jessie Shefrin (an artist herself) puts it, it's not that creative work gets set aside in order to lead an organization, leading is the creative work. Every budget, every meeting, every presentation, every decision is a chance for a creative act. Every interaction is a chance to use art and design principles to get work done—in fact, in a community as visual and creative as RISD, it's often the only way to do it.

Here we will tell our stories about what creative leadership has meant for us; our experiments, successes, and failures with leading though change with design principles, openness, clarity, and transparency. More importantly, we'll have a conversation about what it looks like for you. If there's anything we know about business in the 21st century, it's that success will be more closely tied to creativity and innovation than ever before. So let's figure out, together, what leadership and creativity mean to each other.

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