John Maeda’s six leadership principles.

Another inspiring talk brought to us by Creative Mornings — my first this year. John Maeda took the stage with Becky Bermont to talk about creative leadership. To help John with his new book (Redesigning Leadership) she’s been culling through thousands of his tweets, and they structured the short talk around six principles that emerged.

Knowing a bit about Maeda’s recent struggles at RISD, one can see that these mantras were written as guiding principles for educators or corporate executives who want to learn from artists and lead more creatively. But this is obviously a valuable and inspiring list for any kind of design professional or anyone engaged with creative growth.

1. Build new foundations.

“Artists have to get their hands dirty, starting with core foundations and basic principles.” He showed images of pages and pages of RISD data taped to his walls at home and spoke about touching and feeling the data, getting dirty in the data. This reminded me of Edward Tufte’s seminar, where he strongly suggests that data should be released from the screen — lay it all out on large surfaces and let the data interact in non-linear ways.

2. Craft the team.

“This is a principle I didn’t know from art or design. I was very ‘un-teamish,’ very lone-wolfish.” He gave the example of 1,200 year old temples in Kyoto. When he asked why they’re able to stand for so long, he was told that all of the wood to build the temple came from one mountain. The north, south, east and west sides of the temple were constructed from trees selected from the north, south, east and west sides of the mountain, respectively. Nature had pre-conditioned the wood for durability and strength, according to specific conditions. Selecting great people for your team is like the artist who finds the highest quality materials for her work.

I think this is a bit of a stretch (wood = team) but the poetry of the example is beautiful nonetheless.

3. Sense actively.

“Artists are always trying to sense something.” He showed a javascript project from MIT involving kites in the wind. “Kites help you see the wind. Artists make kites to help you see the wind. Why would you want to feel the wind? Because the wind is always changing.”

4. Take leaps.

He describes a paradigm shift within corporate structures — organizational trees have turned into organizational networks (with some beautiful diagrams to illustrate this). Trans-organizational networks are a radical departure. A “changing wind.” Artists ask questions and then they take leaps. They know when to leap. Another leadership diagram:

  • imagination — completely unstructured
  • creativity — rubbing two good ideas together
  • problem solving — constrained by reality
  • reflex — instinctive

Leaders occupy the lower half (problem solving, reflex response) and artists the upper half (creativity, imagination) — the most strategic space today.

5. Fail productively.

Instead of needing to be perfect, why not just jump in and try? Artists are risk-takers and artists productively fail. Artists have the ability to recover very quickly. Growing from failure means using it to birth another creative moment.

6. Grow from critique.

“Anyone who exhibits art or ships product knows that these are quick ways to get critique. Artists want to do this to change, to find out who they are.”

Maeda didn’t speak much about the controversies surrounding his presidency at RISD, but he did start the talk by saying “I’m in a different place in my life.” Which is a way of saying something, by saying nothing.

He ended the talk with: “It’s been a challenge to be president of RISD in a time of change. RISD has a history of creativity, resistance and pushing back its leaders. I’m the fourth president to get the faculty’s vote of no confidence…how do you stay centered and move forward, and be the artist who can productively fail? How do I be this new person and still be me?”

  • Q: Do you regret taking on the role of president at RISD?
  • A: “No regrets. I can take a stand for creative people. Art is being removed from education and the U.S. is in danger of becoming a test-taking nation like Singapore. I’m trying to inject art into the America Competes Act and I’m thrilled to be able to take this on.”
  • Q: Instead of speeding up, how can we slow down and have longer thoughts?
  • A: “Contemplation and areas of reflection have a history of being in higher education. We need to make more free space and create more time to think. This is critical. Make that space and manage your time. Control your time. The first step is making yourself conscious of this.”


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  3. Paul, thanks for sharing this … As you probably recall (I hope you do), you have played a role in the America Competes Act … Having JM add his two cents to this one piece of major, bipartisan legislation over the past decade is an important contribution to the changing debate in this country (and around the world) over strategy, prosperity and happiness.

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