John Maeda and Don Norman headlined the only PARC Forum event I’ve seen that required intervention by uniformed security (to remove people refusing to leave when room capacity was exceeded). Maeda also had a tumultuous effect in his home institution, the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD). In 2011, Maeda, President of RISD, received a vote of no confidence. His crime? Lead a university in a new way. Last week, he announced that he will leave RISD for Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers (a venture capital firm) and become the chair of a newly-created eBay Inc. Design Advisory Board .

RISD hired Maeda as President in 2008. Maeda’s background included being associate director of research for the MIT Media Lab, but not the normal stepping stone roles for a university president. The idea was to strengthen RSID’s relationship with digital media, though also at a time of economic trouble (for many universities). During Maeda’s presidency, RISD was ranked as the #1 design school in the world (Business Insider 2012) and applications increased by 9.4% (2012) and 3.5% (2013).

Maeda did what many university presidents do not -- he was open with his leadership style. He let go of the closed walls of the C-suite and did his work in public through tweets, blogging, and anonymous Tuesdays where people can vent without repercussion . (I assume negative constructive feedback was also accepted the other six days of the week.)

In 2011 Linda Tischler wrote this in FastCompany :

In his book [ Redesigning Leadership ], Maeda foreshadowed the recent crisis with the faculty: "Being brought into an organization as an agent of change has been a humbling experience in balancing my dreams versus the realities presented in the economic climate I quickly encountered," he writes. "Leading often hurts because the decisions you make can negatively affect a lot more people than just yourself."

In retrospect, his cyberstyle leadership was a misstep at a conservative campus battered by the recession. "He got off on the wrong foot in a superficial way," says Kyna Leski, a RISD architecture professor. "The culture at RISD doesn't put much weight in fast tweets." Still, Leski was disappointed in her colleagues' judgment. "The faculty at RISD hasn't noticed that the world has changed over the past few years. Artists should have their eyes open to the world. John is exactly what RISD needed, and I'm ashamed of my peers right now."

In Redesigning Leadership, Maeda talks about the learning process he went through upon becoming President as RSID. Some of my favorite quotes:

  • "In other words, transparency is great, but it doesn’t necessarily provide clarity."
  • From a tweet: @johnmaeda is thinking how in a world where everyone is an author, author(ity) means less.

Maeda is thoughtful about the human, technical, and organizational aspects of leadership. And he is not afraid to change how things are done at a university -- institutions with their designs drawn from medieval times. He started with an open style, but it wasn’t just with technology. He talks about opening meetings and conversations with, “how am I doing?” ..and he also talks about how hard it was to get people to answer. It took perseverance. These are not fast changes, but they are effective ones.

As I mentioned to my own university president, it’s not just that people want to be involved in the decision making, they also may have valuable, unexpected, information to aid in that decision making. In Redesigning Leadership, Meada says:

Sometimes a voice from left field can set you right—so I have open office hours and breakfasts where faculty, staff, and students can come and visit me individually. I find that being exposed to many opinions opens the doors of possibility. In the end, it’s about learning to hear your own voice as a leader.

I’m sorry to see Maeda leaving the academic community. Institutions of higher education are at a period of great transition -- as are organizations across the board. I believe the leadership needed is more open than the current model. We need to lead by letting go of our walls, our students, and our faculty. We need a design of fluidity and leaders like Maeda push us in the right direction.

Thank you to Phil Simon for pointing me to the FastCo article. Thank you to Nilofer Merchant for recommending I read Maeda’s book, The Laws of Simplicity (Simplicity: Design, Technology, Business, Life)