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Creative Leadership - notes from a talk by John Maeda, President, Rhode Island School of Design

Creative Leadership – NOTES

2009 EDUCAUSE/NERCOMP Regional Conference

Speaker - John Maeda

President, Rhode Island School of Design (RISD)

Original Title (Open Source Administration)

Program listing:


This presentation is available by podcast at

Abstract: Colleges, universities, and other types of organizations the world over are experiencing a radical evolution from organizational hierarchies to organizational networks. Digital technologies hasten this shift; they can be used to flatten hierarchy and restore humanity. Maeda will speak about his philosophy of building and deploying technology systems that support attenuating the emotional connections between people to produce a more creative network. He'll tell stories about community technologies employed in his first months as the president of the Rhode Island School of Design to do just that.

Maeda’s goal is to bring the future back to RISD.  He wants to liven people up.  Several times he indicated that he’s one of us, an IT person.  He said what we (IT staff) do is completely invisible - - non physical - - and hard for people to understand.   He told a story of Marvin Minsky – in the 70s when artificial intelligence was “new”  - You could spend millions on infrastructure that people could see and touch and understand.  DARPA spent millions for a magnetic tape – but the impact of what was on that magnetic tape was huge.

Everyone wants to create the IPod killer - Apple understands hardware from the software side instead of other companies who are looking at the software from the hardware side.

Innovation has been dampened in the current economy.  All are deputized to make sure others know what we do.

Maeda is the only higher education president who blogs publicly and constantly.  He noted that Tony Shea of Zappos runs all his customer service via twitter.  Shea talks to his staff the same way.  You can feel and see it but it’s still very foreign – the norms are trying to shift - - even Grandma’s on Facebook – it’s quiet and so large but you can’t “see” it – how do we help our constituents see it.

Maeda moved from the MIT Media Lab (small) to RISD (large) where he’s been super-sized.

Lots of differences between them

MIT / complexity, 

RISD / simplicity (the MIT for right brain kids)

Lots of famous artists come out of RISD – they make the software of our cultural realm

RISD has a super furnace (for glass) instead of a super computer

He said values can be found with camera, ie, understanding RISD through a camera lens and he showed a number of photos of the campus.

RISD students love to be physically dirty, get their hands dirty, doing their work

Nature Lab – everything is natural – it has to be real – if you can’t touch it , it isn’t real – reality, reality, reality, very critical to the creative process.

Students don’t mind danger - - part of their craft – searching for new art

Everything is very personal – a culture of critique and personal vision.

Spirit of art is everywhere on campus – art belongs in every corner

RISD is the reason “I’m sleep deprived” – students work themselves to crazy levels

When Maeda arrived he thought - if this is one of the most creative schools on earth, then why isn’t this administration creative as well?  and began to think about how to change to a creative administration.

He asked “what does it mean to be a creative leader?”

The hardware & software relationship has changed. It used to be that hardware seemed the more important.  Now the cloud of software is the more important in the relationship with hardware

Social networking, open-design, self-powered,

By 2008 people were giving up on technology and looking for humanity –  technology is more vibrant and personal now with a quest for authenticity.

Thought:  Digital tech – low- high/ vs design/art

MIT – high tech – low art

RISD – low tech – high art

Thought:  Now students have better computers than we do (it didn’t use to be this way)

Art and design schools are adopting technology in a different way – more breadth and depth in that adoption.  How do we find creativity and growth?

Hierarchical leaders are based on the railroad system.  The person at the top with different layers below – similar to military

This is changing as we head into the future. Hierarchy means much less today so the meaning of “leader” is changing, as has access to traditional leaders changed.

Maeda suggests - flatten hierarchy; restore humanity.

All communications at RISD now come from Maeda himself rather than through a hierarchy.

Coffee 101 (meetings) didn’t work so he began a blog to talk to people.  Everyone at RISD has access – faculty, staff, students, everyone, and the penetration rate is growing. Now it’s everyone’s blog.  In the beginning his blog had a blue background but he took the blue off his background so that he is no longer “special”.  He sits with students randomly, at lunch, on the grounds, wherever they are, and askes “How am I doing as president?”  When he sees a rumor flaring up he goes online to say it’s a rumor.  The system is real name authenticated but he has anonymous Tuesdays

Google Meetings – Q&A until all Q are answered – that is a goal of Maeda’s

Maeda says he is running as fast as he can to understand what’s going on.  “If you have at least a modicum of knowledge and understanding then you feel in control”

He has a friend (a designer) who loves being in Italy where he can “be himself”

In Japan – the most important people speak and the others nod agreement.  In America they pound with their fists.  But in Italy you can just talk and sketch out and develop things.  You can see the thought being formed which is valuable and better than just seeing the end product.  An open thinking approach feels comfortable to Maeda and people are watching him to see if it is working.

There are two presidents who were watching who are blogging with him now.

Thought:  People want to know what you are thinking

1) Community is the dominant voice on the blog – it’s no longer “John’s blog”

2) Anonymous Day is respectfully self-managed

3) There can be confusion with opinions versus decision=making process

4) The model of CEO as moderator of this forum is a new idea and takes time – but he sees it as a good investment of his time. 

5)  There were some who said “I’ll never visit the blog,” but then some of those folks suddenly seem to “know” what is on the blog that they’ve said they are not reading.  So those sentiments are strong but weakening.

Thought – when there is an issue, it’s better to have it happen in your own yard than behind your back – so the public blog is good and it allows he to be on campus anytime from anywhere.

He also believes that a CEO “needs a hand.”  Leaders don’t know everything so it is good to hear what others think.  “Many eyes” check it out – good source of information.

Key points:

1)      collective intelligence practices are forming

2)      rewards are important in the form of knowledge sharing

3)      community members finding their own agency (how much do they want to step over the bounds)

4)      criticism and resistance naturally continue

Maeda said that we need to lower the barrier to communication on campus

RISD has a display network – it’s free and unregulated – people are finding their own way of using it in a respectful way.  Anyone can post an image and it just shows up.

RISD intranet.  Adoption takes awhile and it helps to have the president “there”

1)      disbelief that anyone can use it persists

2)      Staff was first-in to advertise internal services

3)      Now seeing trickle of faculty usage; student use intermittent.

4)      Virtual aspect is intriguing and students tell other students

5)      System can adopt any screen saver

Agency for everyone – empower people – hear their voices

Thought:  If there is creative writing, what is creative leading?

There’s too much of the formulaic in our country.  We used to be innovative and now we not.   We have to take a turn in the road, not loosey-goosey with crayons, but professional creativity.  This can only happens if your leader is creative.

Leading authoritatively but creatively

Leading as a creative - Steve Jobs

Leading creatively as an authoritative – Barrack Obama

Traditional leadership    vs      Creative leadership

Authority                                Inspiration

Sticks                                      Carrots

Hierarchy                                Networked

Linear                                      Non linear

Yes or no                                 Maybe - comfort with ambiguity

Loves to avoid mistakes         Learn from mistakes

Check out

Orchestra versus jazz

Wants to be right versus hopes to be right

Opinion matters versus what are you really thinking?

Community in harmony versus community in conversation

Drive to where you are looking versus what can happen?

Administration uses punctuation marks “periods”

Students use question marks - they want a debate or comma – to continue the conversation

Creative administration

How does he have the discipline to do this?  He says you “have to be there”  because it makes a difference  and he feels that he is real… (although, he also said “sometimes you want to hide – but it’s better to be out there”  Recently he found another “clue” talking to students was worth several days of reasoning -  return value is very high.

Maeda said technology professionals are on the cutting edge.  

First of all, the idea of education is built around the tree (faculty is the tree – students gather round) and became institutionalized with a place to sit, get books, learn,  Now they don’t need that text book anymore  and are not living in that world anymore. However, Academia hasn’t discovered that yet.  But it will change because there are a few academics who are edging into the space.  He asked “what does that step look like”  and said the key clue is students entering the school with their own world outside the university.  So many websites and more that the institution can not control and that shift is important – it’s  trans-institutional,  and will automatically extend via social networks and more.   Academia was the filter that held clear knowledge but it doesn’t work that way now.  Maeda suggested that in the future people will ask why we did it this way higher education the way that we have.  

Q & A

Q: What do you do in the pyramid when some don’t know they are in a network?

A: You should set an example – set the stage for what needs to be done – this erodes norms and help change…  IT is invisible (the net has done this)  Connect with the students and “use the force”

Q: Are you still doing your design work? 

A: Maeda can’t do that now – he’s too busy - - so all of his creativity is going into RISD leadership – RISD is his installation art.

Story of a young woman and father who discovers she has questionable photos on Facebook.  She said it’s okay to have those photos on Facebook because “I’m not going to work for someone like you – I’m going to work for someone like me”

Q:  What are good opportunities in the current crisis?

A:  We are trying to understand – moving from the dark, big, vague, complex to a new space and now moving back into reality again.  Hybrid is where growth will occur.  We may feel out of control and want to get into control again but are now socially connected in a global way.  It’s not about numbers and gigabits – it’s about quality.

Q:  Old style leadership had a lot of filters - - you still have to have filters. 

A:  Maeda filters for his campus to make sure they can understand - -   information control is still important in the sense of making it understandable. 

Q: Do you allow prospective students to be on the blog?   How do you define the blog?  A:  Prospective students are not yet invited to the blog– but as they become more comfortable with the blog this may happen – but it will be a community decision not his.

Maeda puts his early thoughts on the blog with a caveat lead-in -  This idea “not fully formed”  is it good?  We don’t know yet.

This session was recorded for podcast and is available at

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Was this lecture ever made available by Podcast? There are some ideas I'd like to hear in more detail.

Timothy Hyde - Creativity Catalyst