Redesigning Leadership: A book review by Bob Morris

Redesigning Leadership: Design, Technology, Business, Life
John Maeda with Becky Bermont
The MIT Press (2011)

“Ue ni wa ue ga aru” is a Japanese aphorism that epitomizes the nature of excellence: “Above up, there is something even higher above up.” The same can be said of John Maeda’s opinion of leadership as a never-ending “work-in-progress.” Those who read his earlier book, The Laws of Simplicity, already know that he is an expert on design thinking who, following the publication of that brilliant work, accepted appointment to serve as president of Rhode Island School of Design. The title of his latest book, written with Becky Bermont, is rich with meaning: Assumptions and premises about almost anything must constantly be challenged and evaluated, with some then redesigned, if not discarded. That is especially true of leadership, Maeda suggests, because those entrusted with leadership responsibilities must constantly challenge their own assumptions and premises about who they are, what they do, and how they do it.

Since his appointment, Maeda has been careful “to approach my journey at RISD [“Rizdee”] as a balance between the artist within me who looks to experiment, and the more systematic thinker who was trained at engineering and business school.” Throughout much of the book, Maeda discusses his journey to achieve and then exceed “something even [and ever] higher above up,” applying principles of design thinking whenever and wherever appropriate bit also maintaining the artist’s acute awareness of both details and what his predecessor, Louis Fazzano, characterized as “the whole system.” Maeda generously shares details of his journey thus far while attempting to accommodate and coordinate and yet differentiate several dimensions of his leadership: as a creative, a technologist, professor, and human being. He demonstrates what Walt Whitman once proclaimed in Song of Myself: “I am large, I contain multitudes.” That is also true of John Maeda…and of each of us.

Here in Dallas there is a farmers’ market near downtown at which several merchants offer slices of fresh fruit to be sampled. In that same spirit, I offer a few brief excerpts from Redesigning Leadership:

When he asked his father what “craftsmanship” was, he replied, “It’s working like you care.” I am reminded of the fact that, in her commencement address at Stanford, Teresa Amabile urged graduates to “do what you love and love what you do.”

“For an artist, `doing the right thing’ isn’t about logically selecting from a set of evaluated opinions, but it is about feeling what is right in the moment.”

As president of RISD, “I’ve given up on Facebook as the best means to pull people together and have turned to a more traditional technology: free food.” Maeda adds that the two-word combination “free pizza” has much greater power to attract attention than do others such as “global warning” and “nuclear disarmament.”

Although some efforts to motivate people using carrots (rewarding with incentives) or sticks (punishing behavior), Maeda thinks “the smell of the carrot needs to be in range or the stick within reach. Said differently, becoming a team starts with an individual making a choice to volunteer themselves for a collective cause.” In other words, pull (attract) volunteers rather than push (pressure) recruits.

“Knowing our limitations is what makes us human; ignoring them is what helps us believe we can lead.”

The founder of the TED conferences, Richard Saul Wurman, has a simple rule of thumb for speakers on the stage: Be vulnerable…[That] allows the audience to be privy to something very special: the speakers’ humanity.”

Maeda notes that one of his trustees “periodically reminds me of a quote by the famous hall-of-famer Casey Stengel: `The key to being a good manager is keeping the people who hate you away from those who are still undecided.'”

I highly recommend both of John Maeda’s books and they need not necessarily be read in the order of publication, with The Laws of Simplicity first, although I suggest that. As is also true of Whitman, he is “large”…he “contains multitudes.” His journey to reach ever higher levels of excellence continues, as do ours

He invites you to visit and will gratefully welcome whatever you wish to share.


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