Some Thoughts on Creative Leadership

“A creative leader is one who leads with dirty hands, much the way an artist’s hands are often literally dirty with paint.” -John Maeda

In his book Redesigning Leadership, John Maeda charts his own journey learning how to be an effective leader as the President of the RISD (Rhode Island School of Design), a position he assumed with very little prior leadership experience.  The very fact that he was appointed to such a position without first rising through the ranks of university administration (he was previously a designer and professor at MIT) speaks to the vision and willingness to take risks of the RISD Board of Directors.  Maeda has been remarkably successful, and points to the advantages (as well as disadvantages) of a creative professional filling an executive leadership role.

The willingness to get one’s hands dirty is one advantage, as Maeda points out in the quote above.  Designers and artists combine thinking and doing as part of the same process, writing notes, making sketches, working and thinking visually as well as conceptually.  This gives them a different approach to tackling problems faced by leaders, one that is at once detail oriented and intuition-based.  The whole gestalt of a situation is more important to a designer or artist than a spreadsheet of numbers, allowing them to see the forest for the trees.

A potential downside to this approach, and one that Maeda encountered first hand, is that the hands-on approach can lead to micromanaging.  Effective leaders cannot do everything themselves, and must trust each member of their team to do their job without their boss hovering over their shoulder or second-guessing their decisions.  The creative leader must balance their dirty-hands approach with trusting and giving space to her/his team members.  Team cohesiveness requires a certain amoung of individual autonomy.

Zooming back out to the bigger picture, one of the most compelling positives in favor of creative leadership is simply Vision.  More and more, innovation is what drives success in business, non-profit and education.  Creatives are who drive innovation because they are professionally trained in the creative process, which involves the enhancement of self-awareness, cognitive abilities and emotional intelligence.  Working intuitively isn’t just something that a creative does naturally, it’s a coherent and intentional process that is cultivated.  This is what enables ideation and brainstorming.

We are in an era of rapid and disruptive change, in economic and social structures, in local and global cultures, and in global resources and environmental disruptions.  The oft-bandied term in Silicon Valley “Innovate of Die!” applies not just to the dot coms but also to the financial and business institutions, to education, and to communities.  More than ever, the sideways thinking and dirty hands approach of creative leadership is needed across all sectors.

The most effective leader is one who is a facilitator rather than a dictator.  John Maeda uses the analogy of a leader who sits atop a pyramid structure, with the mass of his underlings crushed under the weight of the organizational structure.  Instead of this top-down structure, he suggests a leadership model that uses the metaphor of a plum tree, where the leader is at the roots of the tree and the majority of the members of the organization are the leaves and branches bearing fruit.  In this model the leader doesn’t do all the innovation, but rather creates the conditions for innovation throughout the organization. The Google corporation operates a model where employees are required to spend a certain amount of their time working on personal projects.  Every employee at Google assumes responsibility for leadership and participates in innovation, and many of Google’s products such as Google Maps and Google Glass came out of this initiative.  This brings to mind a quote by Lao Tzu: “When the best leader’s work is done, the people say ‘We did it ourselves.'”