Articles, Technology

Avant-garde or Autocrat? Navigating Creative Leadership and Change

Recently, in the Communication Leadership program at the University of Washington, our cohort discussed the intersection of Creative Leadership in the context of the Rhode Island School of Design’s (RISD) controversy over the hiring of John Maeda as the prestigious design university president in 2008. The series of curated articles painted an interesting trajectory of a creative leader hired with great anticipation for change, denigrated for acting dictatorial in his process (which led to a vote of no-confidence in 2011), then _______? In March 2012, the RISD’s board of directors renewed Maeda’s contract until 2015. But then this past December Maeda left for a position in silicon valley.In light of his 2011 release of a book on leadership, aptly entitled Redesigning Leadership, Maeda’s bumpy path of the past few years leaves me questioning whether time will prove him a long-term leader, or a temporary motivator.

Maeda was intent on modernizing the operations of the university, instituting sweeping changes to communication, and radically adapting RISD’s stead curriculum. Maeda was a known twitterphile, and desired to usher in a new era of transparency and open communication across university operations. Upon first review of Maeda’s detractors, Maeda’s plans appeared to fall into two themes common: his vision and language failed to match his most visible behavior; and he attempted to execute his agenda without respecting and building necessary relationships. Classic politics, it seems, plays an important role even within the climate of a university internationally renowned for it’s avant-garde graduates and cutting-edge creative work.

Maeda’s trajectory lends itself to generalizing this tension between the evolving and The Establishment, raising many questions pertinent to those poised for creative leadership: How does a leader separate true vision from self-driven interest? In times of disruptive change, how much of our old system does one preserve in the design of a new approach? Or more appropriately, how closely do we listen to the voices of the requisite resistance?

If successful leadership is classically defined as the ability to build and maintain relationships, these questions, and Maeda’s first “failures” become even more interesting upon RISD’s board of directors three-year renewal of his contract in March 2012. Was Maeda successful in blending old and new dynamics, merging physical connections with digital relationships?

With Maeda’s recent departure, the success of his leadership will hopefully be vindicated by the staying power of his technology-driven values, defining his leadership experiment more as leadership entrepreneurship.

What have you learned about navigating relationships and change in our current communication landscape?

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