I had the pleasure of working with John on Simplicity initiatives in my last role. John is a one of the great thoughtleaders in the field of creativity and we share a passion for the power of simplification in life and business. I am blessed by his friendship and have learned so much from him about creativity and life. In 2006, he wrote a wonderful small book called The Laws of Simplicity (MIT Press, 2006), and in 2007 he also gave a powerful speech on Simplicity at TED.
John has recently published a new book, where he reviews his personal learnings on being a leader in a highly creative environment. It’s called Redesigning Leadership (MIT Press, 2011). I thought it would be great to share his insights.
Andrea Ragnetti: First, tell us about the book…
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. Furthermore, I was brought in as a change agent and someone who fully understands the implications of digital media in the 21st century — only to discover the true limitations of such technologies in the practice of leading.
Andrea Ragnetti: What inspired you to write it?
John Maeda: I wrote Redesigning Leadership with Becky Bermont as an open letter for people in their 30s and 40s who are just taking on leadership roles. I believe there is a call for a new kind of creative leader, who leads inspired by the principles of art and design, and that many of these younger leaders are searching for a way to embody these principles and be true to themselves. The book is an honest attempt to encapsulate what I’ve learned along the way about leadership, and really am still in the process of learning.
By the way, when I had just started working with you a long while back, Andrea, I was taking on more administrative responsibilities at MIT and didn’t have many leadership role models. As my original role model for a CEO-style leader, you were the one that got me started in this journey. Did you know that? It’s true! I would often marvel at how accessible and motivational you were to the people of all levels that worked around you, and I’ve tried to do the same. Just like artists aren’t afraid to get their hands dirty and make something, I think providing access and interacting with all levels of the organization is a true tenet of creative leadership.
Andrea Ragnetti: Thank you for your kind words! You make even leadership sound so…simple. This brings me back to our favorite theme of Simplicity. Any thoughts on the relationship between Leadership and Simplicity?
John Maeda: When we worked together on the quest for simplicity, what quickly became clear to all of us was the complexity of the topic. But 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. For example, we want to have the richness of frosting without the calories, or we want an MP3 player that stores one million songs but is easier to use than a player that holds only two or three. Simplicity is about a miracle of productivity that has no downsides or negative side effects.
So when you consider leadership within that framework of all gain and no pain, then you know that there cannot be simplicity. However, a leader can have simplifying forces surrounding them — something I observed with you, Andrea, with the quality and caliber of people you had 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 and even more importantly being lucky enough to have a gifted Executive Assistant. I feel grateful on a daily basis to work with my Executive Assistant, Marina Mihalakis, for her honed support skills that simplify my daily life as a leader.
Andrea Ragnetti: Apart from the many learnings you derived by your experience as President of the Rhode Island School of Design, do you enjoy being a leader, or would you rather go back to being just a professor?
John Maeda: A professor is a leader of their intellectual field in the broadest sense, and in the day-to-day sense they are the leader of their classroom or studio. I enjoyed being this kind of leader for 12 years, and enjoy being a different kind of leader as President of RISD. Granted, it has come with its own challenges. As I said in the book, “the word leadership is something of an anathema to creative folks as it invokes an image of authority and order over the chaos that we thrive upon.” Indeed, the last three RISD president’s administrations all received a “vote of no confidence” from the faculty in one form or another, and as of this spring I now make the fourth. This expression of sentiment has enabled me to reflect more closely upon the nature and future of higher education as a field. And I ultimately believe in the accomplishments that I and the faculty have brought together, including record fundraising for scholarships, recruiting the most diverse class in RISD’s history, and surviving the financial crisis with the lowest tuition increases in decades, are what will make a stronger RISD and a case for creativity in the world.
Andrea Ragnetti: Is there a lot of difference between leadership in business, in your private life and in institutional leadership?
John Maeda: As for how one’s private life fits into all of this as a leader, there’s been no evidence in any text or papers on leadership I have read that offers any kind of clarity in how to be successful there. The best that I have heard is that it’s not about “balance,” it’s about living a full life in all its dimensions. What I have found through working with Becky Bermont, and through observing her leadership of her own life, is the rewards that having the discipline to cultivate both the work-life and the non-work-life can bring.
Andrea Ragnetti: Any final thoughts?
John Maeda: Well I need to first of all thank you, Andrea, for the opportunity to talk with the leader that got me started down this path as a leader. At RISD I see every day the power of critical thinking, critical making, and true creativity. Ironically, though I am a big believer in the power of social media to share thoughts like this, I have learned the limits of social media as a day-to-day leadership tool. Nothing online can beat the intimacy of a small dinner party or even a shared coffee in a beat-up hotel lobby. So for the “digital native” leaders out there, I strongly recommend that you learn about how to un-digitize yourself a little bit as I’ve discovered I needed to do myself. As Thomas Friedman has said, “You have to get out of Facebook and into somebody’s face.” Or, put another way, turning technology off can help to turn more people on. Thank you.
Andrea Ragnetti: John, I have to thank you again for your incredibly kind words. The impact you had on my approach to creativity was tremendous and I am happy to see that it was reciprocal. In another post, I wrote about the need for leaders to always stay current and this conversation is the demonstration that making an effort to stay current always gives you something valuable in return. My best wishes on your leadership journey!