Technologist as Leader
Transparency is a recurring theme we hear from our politicians and corporate leaders. However, Maeda advises that, while transparency is nice, clarity is better. Those leaders might define transparency as providing information to interested stakeholders. Because the information is available, stakeholders just have to look at it. But clarity facilitates understanding.
For example, nutrition labels provide visibility to factual, accurate information about the foods we eat, but they don’t necessarily make us better informed consumers. Even if manufacturers provided a full list of ingredients, including chemical names and quantities, we would still likely struggle to understand the meaning of such a label.
It wasn’t until the Nutrition Facts label was introduced in 1994—which Massimo Vignelli heralded as “a masterpiece”—that American consumers could get a clear picture of what they were eating. Figure 1 shows an example of a Nutrition Facts label.
Perceiving the difference between transparency and clarity exposes a cop-out that we frequently see in a variety of scenarios—from privacy policies, to software End User License Agreements (EULAs), to banking disclosures. While such documents might be transparent—simply making information available provides transparency—this does not contribute to the clarity of information.
Professor as Leader
It is curious that Maeda’s experiences as a leader have typically occurred in scenarios where people have a greater than typical distrust of leadership. Similarly to creatives, academics seem to have an outsized disregard—bordering on contempt—for leaders.
Academia is a funny industry. Despite its attracting some of the most intelligent minds in any given field, academia is notoriously dysfunctional. Maeda provides this insightful anecdote: In 2004, the United States men’s Olympic basketball team comprised exceptional individuals, but their inability to function as a team ultimately led to their poor performance. It is particularly difficult to lead a team of professionals who are functioning at their peak performance—especially if there is no clear leader.
Maeda’s experience in academia mirrors my own: In higher education, educators essentially run their own small companies, which deliver courses and research. Interference from administrators is not welcome. It is difficult to find examples of strong leadership in academia, not least because these educators have little interest in being led by other academics.
Maeda describes the importance of noncomformity in an organization. He relates his experience working at a company in Tokyo, where there was one person who had a drastically different background from that of his coworkers and was disliked by many people in the office. When Maeda questioned the necessity of keeping this person on the team, the owner of the company replied that this employee was so different that he was able to expose flaws in the conventional thinking of the other employees. Maeda notes that, even in Japanese society, which generally values conformity highly, the unique perspective of this individual contributed to the strength of the organization.
Human as Leader
Almost everyone would agree that the culture of an organization starts from the top. In his book, Maeda describes his experiences working with leaders who exploited the perqs of their office and how their sense of entitlement cascaded through the rest of the organization.
Maeda also shares his sense of what leadership should be. A leader should be an example of ethics and restraint. When a leader eschews the trinkets and tinsel of his or her status, focusing instead on honest communication and getting results, this sense of responsibility cascades throughout the entire organization.
Redesigning Leadership is an easy-to-read book—one that you can read in an evening. Many of the book’s anecdotes might sound familiar; there isn’t much in the book that is new or groundbreaking. But the book offers insights from a leader in the design industry and, thus, provides a good reference point for anyone in a design-leadership position.