2013: A Fifth Rule When Stepping Into the Sunlight

I return to my Life Counter every year at this time, at the very start, to do a brief “look ahead” to put everything (as the late David Foster Wallace refers to as the “skull sized kingdom” of our fixation on our selves) into perspective.

What I am reminded of is not that the PHP script I wrote is getting old, or the GIFs I chiseled are losing their luster, or that the number should read 46 instead of 45 so I should edit the script. But that the progress bar of life is happening for me, and for everyone on the planet. We all have hopes that “the file” will be transferred across the network. That the transmission, ideally, won’t terminate prematurely. And that the estimated number of springs, based upon demographic averages, is way too conservative and incorrect. That’s not just what I want for me, but for all of us that are here.

In 2013, I will continue my resolve to desperately hold on to my original Four Rules from 1999. Undoubtedly I will fail at keeping them in focus for 2013, but as with all resolutions — constituted in plain, average, hopeful human resolve — I carry them into this new year as a conscious act.

In addition, I bring into 2013 a thought given to me by Matt Goldman by George Bernard Shaw on The True Joy in Life. It’s a useful one that nails, for me, the answer to the question of why we live, how to live, and to be aware of the when we live as happening right now, and to try not to waste it all for anything less than what it could and should be otherwise.

Five years ago I was a professor at MIT, and active as a contemporary artist and as a commercial designer. I had just earned an MBA as my part-time hobby, and I had been actively lecturing about the Laws of Simplicity to synthesize and integrate ideas I had formed then about design, technology, and business. And the 2008 election season was brewing … when, like many Americans, I felt that maybe there was a possibility, and a responsibility, for younger, inexperienced Americans to step forward and try to make a difference on the leadership stage. When I accepted the role of becoming President/CEO at Rhode Island School of Design in 2008, without any prior executive leadership experience, and immediately after that appointment being required to navigate my institution through the effects of the global financial crisis, now in retrospect, I often turned to my Four Rules and the annual resolve in them that I had put in place. Because I started with them from a place where I had no idea what “leadership” was really about.

Four years later, I feel fortunate to have tried to take what I learned from the late Paul Rand, as a designer and as a human being, and have worked to transplant that creative philosophy into the leadership space of the other “Paul Rands” in the leadership world like the late John Gardner. And I’ve started working on synthesizing how design, data, and leadership might fluidly intersect as I described in my recent presentation for GigaOm. Later this month I will present my newest thoughts on this topic of design, data, and leadership at the World Economic Forum meeting at Davos as moderated by Gianpiero Petriglieri of INSEAD.

Moving from being a typical “lone wolf”-style individual creative as a designer, artist, engineer, and professor just four years ago, to becoming the chief executive officer of a major non-profit organization has changed me, profoundly. On any given day, it’s easy to look at the range of positive “business marker” results that I have led — whether it be our recent quantum increase in applications, record scholarship and academic fundraising to support our strategic plan, gaining recognition as the top design school in the world — or, instead, the *true* results that matter — like the incredible creative talent that spills out into the world from RISD like no other. But there is always the negativity to contend with — which is palpable and ever present for the chief executive of any institution, and especially in my role as the leader of an institution which, as described by my colleague in the music education sector who inherited similar challenges to mine, is that of trying to run an institution that is inherently anti-institutional. The arts, in practice, are about pushing against the authority of “the man.” As an individual artist and as a professor for many years, I knew that mission and mantra of working against “the man,” intimately. But as the leader, I became … “the man” — and that ongoing struggle with that realization is something I went to in depth in Redesigning Leadership with Becky Bermont.

Whether you are an artist or designer that has chosen to lead, or a leader that isn’t an artist or designer that hopes to learn from artists and designers, or you are an engineer or scientist or any other “type” that is learning to lead, I want you to know that you are, like me, in that space of having an unknown allotment of springs left, that gets to share in George Bernard Shaw’s excitement and wonder. Of joy. And to find your own four, five, six, three, or two , or one rules to work and use as your own compass. Being an individual and contributing as an individual is never an easy task when you care about that work, more than treating it as if it were just “work.” The same can be said for leading individuals, or leading groups of leaders that lead individuals or leaders. It’s easy when you don’t care. It’s hard when you care. And when you care, it feels *awesome* when you win. And feels terrible when you don’t.

Failure is such an important aspect of leadership — something we’ve discussed often on the WEF’s New Models of Leadership Council, and I thought the most profound comment on the topic came from one of our members — a legendary hockey coach — the post is here, and the key quote is:

“Many times leaders in the public sphere are criticized for some mistake or failure as if it was the worst thing imaginable to happen. But as a coach of a hockey team I’ve learned that if you as a leader are not willing to feel any pain you are not willing to risk anything — you are not reaching high enough and far enough. I tell this to my players all the time — if they’re not failing, they’re not trying hard enough.”

This is a powerful thought: If you aren’t failing, it means you aren’t reaching high enough and far enough.

As an individual artist, designer, engineer, or any field you may be from, we know the power of failure and iteration, but when we fail, those failures often get to go unnoticed. When leaders fail, however, it becomes something quite different. And that difference is what a leader signs on to, and either falls under its weight and gets crushed, or chooses and shifts to a different path by exiting, or else … embraces the challenge, gets right back up, and finishes the job.

Hmm, this has gotten quite long. And it’s already past my 30-minute limit of extended blogging. Most of you have already left by now (that ending scene in Ferris Bueller remains one of my adolescent era’s all-time favorites). Thanks for reading to the end. I am now ready to add a fifth rule to my Four Rules. I now realize that was the original intent of writing all of this, which I didn’t know until I got to this ending. Now I can figure out how to title this post. There. It is borrowed from someone that I admire:

  • 5. When others go low, go high.

It’s a variant of my rule #1, but especially important for anyone in the public sphere or otherwise exposed to scrutiny that goes beyond the kitchen table. Which reminds me, I wrote about this long ago in a different form. In 1990-ish. Here it is. I called it, in effect, “stepping into the sunlight.” Ah. That’s a better post title. There. All set.

Phew. And here I am by my window. And the sun is shining through the trees at the perfect angle and exactly in my face. Time to wait for spring. Thank you for helping me to start my new year, and good luck to you in 2013! -JM