Be the Leader you Wish you had

I work in a place that is fabulously fun every day. This was not always so. When I was a fresh, newly appointed lead in our Boston studio, I struggled to have much fun. I viewed my role as a thankless duty to direct and be responsible for others. I believed I was a fixer of broken things, thinking, and people. And the story I told myself was that I was the martyr for the fun that others were having while I dealt with the important leaderly stuff.

As a result, I spent most of my time finding and focusing on problems, real or imagined, and adding to a growing list of things I would solve to make my mark. My notebooks from those days suggest that I believed I would be a hero one day, but for now, was resigned to suffer through unrewarding and lonely work. I was an asshole. And you get what you give.

I had started a project with Quiksilver, and with that a new relationship with a client (now a good friend) named Erik — a very successful creative director, who I was getting to know. Erik invested in inspiration for himself and everyone on his team. He took personal interest — maybe even selfishly so, if that can be said in a positive way — in the idea of inspiration. He made sure he was creatively nourished and emulating the kind of creative culture he wanted to instill. It was mutual and reciprocal among his team.

That inspired me to try something different for myself. I wrote a simple note on a Post-It (thanks, 3M) and stuck it to my computer.

It read, “be the leader you wish you had.”

I know. It’s all Gandhi and shit (Apologies, Gandhi, for any disservice in my comparison). But it shifted my thinking radically. I made a commitment to own my happiness and creative experience.

That week, over regular drinks with a colleague that were usually defined by tears-and-beers, we were laughing over an article in Vice called “Wear Dare” in which a couple of friends dressed one another for a day and described their embarrassing moments. We wondered what that would be like at work…

“Let’s do it,” I said. Following my new directive.

We goaded each other into a moment of nervous fear, laughter, and most importantly action… what if this goes wrong? Or worse, what if it goes right?

We invited everyone to put his or her name in a hat and drew at random…

Here’s what happened:

It was the
best
day
ever.

It was joyous and unserious.
It wasn’t about fixing, it was about sparking something and letting go.

Only four people didn’t participate out of a studio of nearly 60. I am sure they regretted it! And looking back, I believe that day was a key moment in a process of transformation for myself, using my position for fun instead of misery. It was that raw creative act that broke the dam for me.

Around that time, the project leader for the Quiksilver work came to me with the idea of traveling the California coast in an RV — you know, “as research.” I knew he expected me to say no. And it would certainly lose us a bit of money, but I suppressed the leaderly should and followed my new directive and said yes.

My landlubber colleagues got to be surfers for a few weeks. I joined the team on the road and reconnected with my surf-teen years in San Diego (I now surf in my 40s more than ever along with a few work friends). More importantly, surfing every day, sketching in the sunset over beer and pizza in roadside campgrounds with a bunch of other (mostly) dudes, trading ideas until we fell asleep in the RV, and fomenting the growing optimism and joy of building play into our workday led to the design of great concepts for the client — some of which went to market.

Other changes followed.

We hired some amazing people, who never would have been hired prior, as interviews shifted from picking people apart to finding and supporting possibility.

We supported a colleague’s wedding by dressing up in Tyvek suits and walking, single file, to the courthouse through Cambridge, MA.

The Tyvek wedding party. Because everyone should be able to wear white.

We did design fiction exercises over lunch. The culture began to be one that craved creative pokes to encourage the flow of great ideas.

The studio evolved from being a quiet participant in the business to a creatively rowdy collection of designers from Boston producing content that the rest of IDEO still references.

How we were began to shape what we did.

I went from wanting to quit through tears of frustration, to four years later when, on a muggy summer day with a cooler full of cheap delicious beer and a whole pig spinning behind me on a spit, I said goodbye through tears of a different sort. The studio had made me a box of bizarre drawings as a gift. So much had changed with that simple note to myself.

I’m not suggesting that dressing your colleagues in thrift store pantsuits will fix everything. Nor that you need to hit your nadir and be ready to quit before you can find the inspiration to lead from your creative self.

In fact, this is not really about you or me at all.

This is about what I learned the hard way: That great creative leadership is about letting go of that nagging mental image you have of what you are supposed to do. It’s about believing in others, and focusing on fanning the flames of creative, weird, exothermic people, rather than on fixing problems.

How you approach your day is how you will live your life.

If you see your role as a list of broken things that need to be fixed, life will deliver you nothing but. But if you actively seek creativity and fun, and enjoy a little embarrassing dress up now and again, you might just find yourself successfully in the middle of the vibrant culture you’d once wished for.

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