John Maeda on creative leadership

Here’s a really interesting diagram created by my friend John Maeda, who is the President of RISD. It’s a portrait of leading, surviving being the leader of something, and then thriving and growing:


This diagram really speaks to me. It resonates with every experience I’ve had leading the process of bringing something new to the world. Related to this diagram, about eleven months ago I was in the “do it” phase of a big effort, and I wrote a post here about that experience titled “Climbing Mountains and Wells“. Here’s an excerpt:

When I look back upon the things I’ve embarked upon to create change in the world, one thing stands out: the journey always took much longer than projected. If that journey was something akin to climbing a big mountain, I spent more time navigating the approach to the base of the mountain than summiting the peak, if you will. I rarely if ever planned for this “flat” part of the trip. The mountain peak is so seductive, so sexy — it’s where you want to end up, so you focus on what it will take to scale the verticals. But as it turns out, it’s the long walk to the base of the mountain that’s the hardest part. It’s about perseverance more than strength.

Innovating something, be it a stand alone product or a massively interconnected system, involves many more days of getting to the peak than it does scaling the peak. This is because there are so many pitfalls along the way — so it always feels like you’re climbing something. Climbing a mountain face or a well, it feels the same: steep, slippery, and difficult. As it turns out, a lot of that climbing happens because you’ve stumbled into a crevasse or a well, and you have to find your way out before you can get back to your mission of walking to the mountain. It can’t be helped; if you’re innovating, by definition you’re venturing out through the dark unknown, so of course you’ll stumble and fall and have to pick yourself up.

What I like so much about John’s diagram is how it gives you a visceral feeling for what it feels like to “do it”, to create something new. You really do find yourself wondering “will I survive?” Per my thoughts from last year, being able to pick yourself up after a fall (being reborn) sure feels a lot easier when you know that everyone else goes through the same process, too.

Critically, it also shows the need to allow yourself time to reflect upon the change that’s been unleashed, and to learn from it. In the heat of the moment, it’s really tempting to “do it” and “survive” and then quickly loop back to “advance”. But that’s when big mistakes start getting made, where you harm your relationships with others, and where you burn yourself out. It’s critical to give yourself the time to stabilize and emerge refreshed, inspired, and ready to roll again.

Amazing diagram!