Redesigning Leadership

This last year, I’ve felt burnt out on business books. I read enough of them and, frankly, I find myself less and less motivated to do so. I used to take 3-4 of them on every personal holiday and devour them. But I find myself less and less interested. Last weekend, as an example, I read a few magazines and then one lightweight book, “Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me” by Mindy Kaling.

So when a friend, Andrew Blau, invited me to come to an event to hear about a new leadership book, I prepared to yawn. But then I realized, it’s Andrew and he just doesn’t hang out with yawn-inspiring people (other than me, I suppose). So, I thought to myself, I ought to pay attention.

John Maeda of the Rhode Island School of Design and his co-author Becky Bermont talked about their new book, Redesigning Leadership.

John, as many of you already know, is a President of a major institution after years of being a designer and computer scientist at MIT. He is well known in the design thinking community because of his best-selling work on Simplicity. Yet, all these accomplishments aside, it was his personal narrative that spoke to me as the reason to read this book. As he describes, he used to be the guy speaking his mind against “the man” and now realizes in his new leadership role, he is “the man”. So, the book that John and Becky crafted together is a story about how an individually-minded thinker steps into leadership.

Let me share some snippets I underlined as I read…

On signing people up:

I’ve learned that the first step in forming any team is to resolve the most basic challenge: getting folks to take the big step away from just being themselves (the thing we all know best) and joining something larger (the thing we fear may let us down).

On the need to involve others in decisions

We love to be there at the moment of conception of an idea and when we’re not, we’re less likely to be excited by the idea (because it doesn’t feel like our own).


Being heard lessens being hurt.

On meetings:

In the best meetings, there are usually more wannacomes than havetacomes.

On setting direction:

Slides and documents aren’t the point; discussion and decisions are.

On diversity:

Difference drives deliciousness.

On decision-making:

It’s not about top-down or bottom-up – it’s about working together.


Community and communication are advanced by simply recognizing what lies in common (c, o, mm, n)

On conflict:

Constructive conflict is about building something, whether it is hatching a new idea through debate or reaching a new goal through healthy competition between teams.


…Create a type of organization that is capable of continuously dissolving conflict while increasing choice…

Judging by the work, John gets that to lead his organization through this turbulent times, it’s going to require a collaborative leadership model. Maybe collaboration is comfortable given his humble, non-braggy approach. Or maybe it is because he never liked authoritative, hierarchical leaders when he saw them in action. Or perhaps he chose it because he recognizes this is a time for thinking outside of any box, and so he’s willing to experiment with collaboration. I don’t know. But as I read his work, it’s clear to me he is a consummate collaborator – a champion of ideas being brought into the world with and through others.  Several times, I thought he embodies The New How.

Any book can be a meditation of sorts – to think about the topic through the lens of another. John and Becky have crafted a playful take on what it means to lead, collaboratively.

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