Jason Byassee: The ironies of leadership
For example, Lutherans in 16th-century Germany sought to remind themselves of the importance of the Scriptures by emphasizing Isaiah 40:8 -- “The word of the Lord abides forever.” They sought to remember it by stitching it inside their clothes, often in its Latin abbreviation, VDMIAE. This practice, ironically enough, calls to mind the Jewish practice of posting an inscription of part of the Shema to doorposts of Jewish homes, not only in obedience to Deuteronomy 6:9, but also for family members to kiss upon entry: the Lord will watch over our going out and our coming in (Psalm 121:8).
Christianity itself is a matter of “creative retrieval,” as David Ford, a theologian at Cambridge, has recently put it. It is not a mausoleum. Nor is it an expo designed to sell the newest (and most expensive) gadgets just because they are new and expensive. Rather, Christianity is a matter of traditioned innovation: drawing out from the storehouse of common memory the perfect new thing for today.
Every time the church celebrates the Eucharist we are re-membered -- literally made once again members of the body of Christ. In this way the church may have more to learn from the military than the business community. It is impossible to teach military history without drawing endless historical analogies, and then debating about the appropriateness of those analogies. Business history is a narrower field, and history departments in business schools are rather underpopulated.
Yet if business schools do no history, everything that Christian training institutions do is an act of memory, and in this way we are more akin to the military than to enterprise. Christian innovation always has to measure itself against the witness of Scripture and tradition -- and then it must ask whether God’s people today are served well with this new (old) thing.
The innovation firm IDEO prides itself on offering the sorts of design solutions that Roger Martin describes. One such innovation for its client Bank of America was born out of exacting attention to the ways people use their banks. IDEO observers, clipboards in hand like anthropologists in the field, noticed that most banking customers don’t bother to write the cents in their check registers along with the dollars, and some even round the dollar amounts.
Tim Brown, in “Change by Design,” describes the way they saw people keeping their change in jars and overpaying power bills by writing checks in round numbers. IDEO also noticed what any observer of American financial practice must know: we are terrible savers. Staring into this twin mystery, IDEO proposed a solution: a program called “Keep the Change.” If people don’t care about the exact amount, and people need to save more, why not have the bank round expenses up to the nearest dollar and put the cents into the customers’ savings accounts?
A transformative leader who observes well must be, in Saul Bellow’s words, a “first-class noticer.” She must be willing to ask a dumb question: “Why do we do it that way?” She must not, at first, be too quick to suggest, “Why don’t we do it this way?” The objective, stubborn, three-dimensional details must come first. Ellen F. Davis, an Old Testament scholar at Duke University, speaks of a friend who teaches art to people who will never be professional artists. The key to such teaching is to pass on noticing skills: how light falls on objects at different times of day, how it refracts through dust, how deeply subtle changes matter. The goal is to teach these students to “never be bored again.” There are always more details waiting to be noticed, and as poets and mystics have always taught us, God is in the details.
But so is the devil. Amy Herman teaches professionals and leaders in fields other than art how to look at paintings. Her sessions remove people from their accustomed settings and ask them to draw on the skills of their professions to analyze and discuss the details of works on gallery walls. In one exercise, a participant describes a painting to a colleague who can’t see it but must then sketch it based on her partner’s words. The goal is not just learning to see anew; it is learning to communicate well in settings where we lack well-formed language.
A Harvard Business Review article titled “The Innovator’s DNA” noted that entrepreneurial leaders spend 50 percent more time on five “discovery” activities than their less innovative peers. One of those activities is networking. Such leaders do not get to know others with the intent of marketing to them or borrowing ideas from them. They spend time with people in vastly different occupational fields than their own without a preset goal for what they will learn. They attend idea conferences. They put themselves in positions where they are not the smartest in the room and work to befriend those who are. And this is wise -- most of the smart people always work for someone else.
Steven Johnson’s book “Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation” works to undo the cherished American myth of the lone innovator, sequestered in his garage, coming forth as if from the head of Zeus with something no one has ever thought of before. That does happen sometimes -- Willis Carrier, inventor of modern air conditioning, is one pure example. Yet innovation much more often comes through “liquid networks,” confluences of relationships that change enough to keep ideas fresh but not so much as to disintegrate.
The place of scientific discovery, for Johnson, is not the laboratory of the solo scientist. It is the conference room, where ideas are argued out and then cultivated communally. This is why city dwellers are so much more innovative, percentagewise, than the same number of people in rural areas. Living in one another’s space makes people more likely to find those interested in their narrow sliver of passions. At the same time, it makes them more likely to bump into those different enough to challenge and improve their thinking (See Edward Glaeser in “Triumph of the City”).