December 2010


My sculpture class at Georgia State introduced me to some of the more creative artists at the school. One lady in particular was a practitioner of performance art. One day she piled sand on the floor “just so” in preparation for her presentation, only to find at show time a forklift sitting atop her sculpture. After a stern lecture on art appreciation, the offending construction worker removed his equipment, and the performance went on, complete with wooden railroad ties and votive candles. Part of her performance was the credit given to her generous sources, who seldom knew of their contributions to the art world: unwitting restaurants and construction sites were generous benefactors. Another time she incorporated a beautifully-carved fireplace facade. It’s amazing the art you can create when you steal beauty from other people.

While I have major issues with the particular way she applied the use of “found objects,” over time I’ve become a practitioner myself. There’s some real value in one artist building on another’s ideas. I’m not talking about plagiarizing or stealing your competitors’ ideas; in fact, the best companies and the most creative sorts ignore their competitors completely. Instead, I suggest stealing from other arenas. Let me explain the principle and follow with a well-known example.

An old mentor in my early days as a graphic designer told me not to read design magazines. Instead, read books or magazines about my interests. You will copy what you expose yourself to, and if all you see is other designers’ work, you’ll end up doing cheap imitations. His inspiration was manhole covers. He found ways to use the old European ironwork to inspire his work in paper, paint and wood. So, whatever your industry, don’t read the trade publications. Instead, expose yourself to the broader world around you.

In The Age of the Unthinkable, Joshua Ramo tells the story of Shigeru Miyamoto, who borrowed a chip from an automobile airbag to create the Wii. He “‘mashed up’ two seemingly unrelated things — an accelerometer and a video game — to create something new.” The Wii singlehandedly transformed the gaming industry, not just in a technological way but by changing the mindset of gaming. No longer was the world divided cleanly into gamers — overwhelmingly male, couch-potato types — and nongamers. Now some of the fastest-growing markets were female and elderly. Wii Fit ridiculously turned all of the stereotypes on their heads.

Mashups capture a sense of creativity that passes established borders, that combines a sort of deep, curious yearning… with a hands-on, practical tinkerer’s spirit. But when these two are wedded, innovation becomes inevitable.

Mashups can be game changers, but it takes a visionary to find the usefulness of one industry to transform another. Leaders don’t imitate. Whatever problem you’re facing, perhaps you need to lift your eyes. Look outside your industry to see how you might apply someone else’s solution to your own problem.

While wrapping up Brad Smart’s book Topgrading, I launched into the first chapters of The Age of the Unthinkable, by Joshua Cooper Ramo. Both have me thinking about what characteristics to look for in the leaders of tomorrow. Predicting leadership characteristics in a broad view is easier than predicting for any one position, because the requirements for a particular position at a particular point in time are extremely difficult to predict. Organizational priorities and opportunities might require a successor to look very different from his predecessor.

Ramo doesn’t answer the question directly, but he does offer a suggested resume for someone pursuing a career in foreign policy. There are leadership implications in this list:

  • Should be able to speak and think in revolutionary terms
  • Should have an expertise in some area of the world — be it China or the Internet or bioengineering — where fast change and unpredictability are the dominant facts of life
  • Should have experienced the unforgiving demands for precision and care that characterize real negotiation
  • Likewise, should have experienced the magical effect of risk-taking at the right moments
  • Should have mastered the essential skill of the next fifty years: crisis management
  • Should be inclined toward action, even action at times without too much reflection, since at certain moments instinct and speed are more important than the lovely perfection of academic models
  • Most of all, however, we need policy makers and thinkers who have that revolutionary feel for the inescapable demands of innovation. We need early adopters…

Smart meanwhile talks a lot of about the competencies most desirable in “A players.” Number one on his list:

Resourcefulness refers to your ability to passionately figure things out, like how to surmount barriers… It is a composite of many [competencies]: Intelligence, Analysis Skills, Creativity, Pragmatism, Risk Taking, Initiative, Organization/Planning, Independence, Adaptability, Change Leadership, Energy, Passion, and Tenacity.

No wonder Smart refers to it as “the megacompetency.” Do you see the overlap with Ramo’s list? In an era of epic change, the leaders of the future will be resourceful, instinctive and action-oriented revolutionaries, risk-takers and innovators. This goes back to a previous point I’ve made that academic institutions and MBA programs have been training people for a reality that doesn’t exist anymore. There are few existing models for the world these leaders will face. So, perhaps we should add one more to the list: Critical Thinking skills. They need to be able to think on their feet.

Books I’ve read this quarter:

  • Rescuing Ambition, by Dave Harvey
  • Start with Why, by Simon Sinek
  • Real Leaders Don’t Do PowerPoint, by Christopher Witt
  • The Return of the King, by J.R. Tolkien (to my boys)

I’m currently reading:

  • Topgrading, by Brad Smart
  • Servant Empowered Leadership, by Don Page
  • Radical, by David Platt

On my nightstand to read next:

  • Many Colors, by Soong-Chan Rah
  • What Got You Here Won’t Get You There, by Marshall Goldsmith
  • The Mentor Leader, by Tony Dungy
  • First Break All the Rules, by Marcus Buckingham
  • A Sense of Urgency, by John Kotter

A friend recently told me he had a voucher for a free book at Amazon. “Which book would you recommend?” Great question. I’ve been posting my reading list for a year now, so let me go back and give my top 5 books for this year.

  • Leading Across Cultures: Effective Ministry and Mission in the Global Church, by James E. Plueddemann
  • Leading with a Limp, by Dan Allender
  • Switch, by Chip and Dan Heath
  • Start with Why, by Simon Sinek
  • The Leadership Jump, by Jimmy Long

So if you can only pick one and you work in a cross-cultural ministry setting, Plueddemann’s the one to read. For leadership in general, it’s Allender. And for leading change, it’s the Heath brothers. As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

In an attempt to get inspired to write regularly again, let me take a moment to jot down some random Friday thoughts and see if I can tie them to leadership.

It seems that every time a long-time football coach retires, he talks about how he saw his role as a developer of young men. Many certainly have. I can think of a number who have left a long wake of young men who were having trouble with school or the law and turned them into students and men of character who could succeed in life. If that’s true, then football coaches are indeed among the best of models for leadership.

That brings me back to the word, “de-commit.” It’s a word that’s being more and more widely used in the world of college athletics recruiting. I saw it again in the paper this morning. An athlete commits to one school but circumstances change or the athlete, claiming youth and immaturity, simply changes his mind. He then “de-commits” and then commits to another school.

But “de-commit” is not a word. Instead, let’s call a spade a spade: the athlete is breaking his word. The reasons might be defensible, but his promise is no longer dependable. What makes it worse is that coaches don’t stop recruiting someone when they commit somewhere, because they can always de-commit. What a horrible starting point if the object is to develop men of character. That’s what was so refreshing about this story last year about Paul Johnson, coach at Georgia Tech:

A quarterback from Tampa made a commitment to Georgia Tech but wanted to take a visit to Auburn. Perhaps he realized he hadn’t taken full advantage of the lavish attention poured out on recruits during their official visits. Perhaps he wanted to keep his options open. Perhaps he was having doubts. Either way, Johnson warned him that he’d lose his scholarship offer if he visited another school. He decided to call Johnson’s bluff, and Johnson let him go. I think the most remarkable part of the story is that this episode made the news.

If my boys were interested in playing football, I’d put Georgia Tech a little higher on my list because of this story. I desire that my kids grow up to be men of character. And coaches like Paul Johnson know how to build men.