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Expressions in Leadership

March 26, 2016


Good Afternoon Ladies and Gentlemen. It’s great to see all of you here at the inaugural “Expressions in Leadership” conference. It’s a gorgeous Saturday and the fact that you are here emphasizes the reason why the University of Texas at Arlington continues to gain national attention and has a tremendous reputation for excellence – we have great, talented students who are not just the leaders of tomorrow but are already leaders today – at the university and in their communities.

It is always a rich, rewarding and extremely humbling experience to be with you all, especially at times when we celebrate leadership. I am continuously amazed by the breadth and depth of commitment, dedication and service that I see from the student leaders at UTA – whether it be in enhancing student life on campus, providing new educational programming for students, engaging in service activities, or in creating a better community – you lead the way for all of us. I am also in awe of the level of creativity shown by a large number of you – not just in the arts or in scientific and technological activities, but in starting new businesses as some of you have done, and in finding innovative solutions to issues that have blocked others, and even in the way in which some of you find excuses not to get up in time for class or to complete assignments.

When Tim Quinnan asked me to talk about the intersection of leadership and creativity the first thing that came to mind was a Venn diagram. For those who don’t remember, or have tried hard to forget the nightmares of math associated with set theory, an intersection, which is represented by an upside down V or U, is the group that is common to two sets. As an engineer, of course, I tried to think about the topic in mathematical terms. Then I realized that I would be talking while people were eating lunch and that might not be the best occasion to go into details of math and logic. But it is a notion worth exploring. What is the intersection of leadership and creativity, and what should that mean to us at UTA?

Legendary management consultant Peter Drucker said “Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things.” Social Psychologist and sociologist Eric Fromm noted that “Creativity requires the courage to let go of certainties” – and perhaps those two quotes are the best way to look at that intersection.

In today’s world we talk about leadership and creativity all the time. We talk about the former in terms of everyday activities as though getting up in the morning, attending a workshop, discussing how we might best serve organizations in which we are members is leadership. Often doing anything at all is acclaimed as showing leadership. But is that really the case – leadership is more than doing your job, or completing a task. Its more than moving from A to B along a pre-ordained path or even along a more indirect trail. It’s more than just doing what a lot of others have done before, and will continue to do in the future. Following instructions or doing what’s expected even when that entails having others report to you and ensuring that they reach a pre-determined goal is a characteristic of a good manager.

True leadership is shown in standing up for what is right, in exploring the unknown, in making difficult decisions especially at personal cost. Leadership is shown when one does things so that others benefit and when people are nurtured, motivated, and empowered to do their best – and often better than even that.

John Quincy Adams when asked to define a leader said “If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader.” In other words the characteristics of leadership are often those that do not put oneself on the front pages of a newspaper. Rather the actions of a leader cause others to attain great heights and to be celebrated for their successes. In fact the best leaders achieve great progress for their organizations by doing things in the background – enabling others and empowering them to reach levels that would otherwise have been impossible. In my mind a great leader is one who quietly and silently manages to get an organization to change direction, to do new things, to attain high peaks of achievement, and all the while making the team or the members of the organization feel as though they, and not the leader, were responsible for the successes. A leader leads by example and often accomplishes change by showing how it can be done, quietly rolling up ones sleeves and doing more than anyone else on the team and not asking others to do things that she or he is not doing as well.

Leadership is not the same as popularity. It’s often lonely, and a leader is often misunderstood because she or he takes responsibility for actions and mistakes, even when they are made by others. A leader sometimes has to say no – a manager finds a way to blame others, a leader quietly keeps going not attempting to pass off blame or the responsibility on others. High standards, steadfastness in purpose, an extremely high level of integrity, and a constant level of concern for the people for whom she or he is responsible are the marks of a leader.

We often confuse creativity with just doing things in a different way irrespective of the end result. And even worse we use the terms creativity, innovation, and entrepreneurship interchangeably when in fact they represent very different characteristics and ways of approaching life, a problem or an opportunity at hand. Creativity is essential to the development of new products, the opening of new markets and the initiation of businesses. It’s the prime characteristic that enables companies and institutions, big and small, to continue growing in reputation and size, and to not only survive, but to thrive.

Till recently though it has not been directly linked to leadership although the best leaders of the past – in politics, the corporate world, in academia, and the community have always had a flair for creativity – the ability to think of things in new ways – to look at an issue without being constrained by a pre-existing box. The global, interconnected, technologically driven economy has however brought this to the forefront. As competition becomes faster, as results are conveyed over multiple media channels in the blink of an eye, and as decisions taken in one area have a profound impact in a range of other areas because of the interconnected nature of the world we live in – leaders need to be agile, flexible and creative. They need to be able to not just come up with incremental strategies for progress but evolutionary, and revolutionary ones.

Creative leadership then is not just having new and good ideas but its having the ability to develop an environment in which the team feels valued and empowered to move outside the confines of the box, to be able to view the world through a new set of eyes.

Julia Cameron the best-selling author of The Artists Way wrote that “Creativity is always a leap of faith. You're faced with a blank page, blank easel, or an empty stage.”

In my mind that probably the easiest way to approach that Venn diagram I started with – the intersection of creativity and leadership. It’s when someone has to take that leap of faith – being willing to trust in ones abilities, and in those with whom one works, when faced with a challenge and be willing to do something new. Creative Leadership is thus in part being a visionary at the same time as being a coach and motivator. It’s being able to see an issue not as a problem, but a challenge, for which a solution can be found – often in ways that demand starting with a clean, fresh, sheet of paper. It’s being able, and willing, to try new ways, to explore the uncharted territory, and to be willing to think differently.

It’s being different, being willing to achieve things that others thought impossible, it is being willing to be a Maverick – and all of you as students at UTA are Mavericks. All of you are creative leaders and I am confident that in each of you there burns that flame of confidence that Richard Bach wrote about when he said: “When you have come to the edge of all the light you have and step into the darkness of the unknown believe that one of the two will happen to you. Either you'll find something solid to stand on or you'll be taught how to fly!”

By being here today each of you has taken the first step towards creative leadership. It is my hope that each of you will nurture and enhance, inspire others to dream, and make those dreams a reality. Thank you for what you’ve done and for what I’m confident you will continue to do as you progress in your academic and professional careers. Good luck on a productive day – and Thank You for being Mavericks.