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Examining leadership through a different lens—literally

There are no shortage of methods and means to understand and improve your leadership skills, and few professionals would deny the valuable insights that professional development, coaching, and mentorship can provide. But among all the learning opportunities available, there is one that might surprise you. And it requires you to bring your camera.

Several years ago, MIT Sloan Lecturer and Executive Director of the MIT Leadership Center, Hal Gregersen, wanted to enhance his photography skills. He enrolled at the Santa Fe Photographic Workshops, where he became a mentee of renowned photographer Sam Abell. Expecting to see an improvement in his artistic passion, Gregersen was surprised to find that the lessons in image making also enriched his own research on leadership.

Gregersen saw that his core advice on how to reimagine organizational strategies and cultures mapped directly onto what Abell has taught for decades about creating photographs worthy of National Geographic. For example, seeing new possibilities for an organization often demands an eagerness to find what one is dead wrong about, a willingness to step back and quietly listen, and a patience to take in the dynamics of a situation—especially an uncomfortable one. In the same way, the best photographers develop deep “seeing skills” and patiently compose and wait out in the field, where vulnerability inevitably leads to powerful images.

Gregersen and Abell decided to team up and bring their collective insights to an executive audience—specifically, leaders interested in photography as a powerful mode of learning. The intersection between inquiry and images is the foundation of their three-day program, Leadership and the Lens: Learning at the Intersection of Innovation and Image-Making. The innovative, hands-on course has become a sought after and highly unique program within the MIT Sloan Executive Education portfolio. Gregersen and Abell lead this workshop with all the enthusiasm that comes from their discovery of a novel, hybrid method of learning.

Among their inaugural offering was Ed Higgins, a senior executive with the Federal Government and a certified executive leadership coach.

“Leadership and the Lens was a great experience, an intimate class, a very diverse crowd, and a trusting environment in which you could express yourself,” says Higgins. “Everyone brought something different to the table … and everyone felt heard. Hal and Sam were extremely flexible and took the class in the direction that we individually and as a group needed to go.”

As an avid photographer, Higgins had captured on “film” many aspects of the leadership programs he had attended or led himself as a leadership coach working with C-Suite executives. He began to explore the possible intersections between making a photograph and leadership during his initial coaching certification training. However, prior to enrolling in the Executive Education course he had yet to make a firm connection between the act of making photographs and the execution of higher-level leadership. In the program, that connection was not only made in the classroom but experienced firsthand, on the streets of Cambridge.

©Ed Higgins Photography. All Rights Reserved.

Higgins encountered Sam Abell on the street by chance one morning, shortly after sunrise. Abell was in the process of making a photograph, and Higgins hung back to do the same. They later joined forces to explore some dynamic opportunities at MIT’s boathouse.

“A lot of what we discussed in the classroom had an emphasis on awareness, on developing attention, on being present and in the moment, and the importance of stepping out of your comfort zone. And then, with that, we had to go make a photograph on the streets, something that went beyond the thousands of pictures that appear everyday on Instagram and are quickly forgotten.” Higgins explained the three-step approach that he and his fellow course participants applied to their task at hand.

“As a photographer, you’re looking for something that’s dynamic in the sense of being interesting. When you think about taking the approach of a photographer, it is a trait that can benefit leaders in organizations. You get the sense that something is going to happen there, although you don’t know what but are open to it. That can be unsettling and for leaders, stifle innovation or needed change. Given your heightened interest in the scene you commit yourself to the receptivity of making of a photograph.” You next focus on technical aspects, like selecting the right lens, and depth of field, shutter speed, and ISO. This is similar to the focus on technical aspects that can be consuming and often limiting for leaders. And finally, the third step, “the most challenging: You wait!”

This third step is the cornerstone of Sam Abell’s photography practice—compose and wait. By his definition, this approach translates to seeing an unresolved situation that has potential, framing the scene around this potential, and then enacting “the power of the pause.” Abell teaches participants that once you establish how you want the more static, background layers to appear, if you’ve chosen your spot well, the dynamic element you need to complete the image will eventually enter the frame.

©Ed Higgins Photography. All Rights Reserved.

Higgins found the backdrop of a large red sculpture on the campus of MIT to be dynamic, adjusted his camera settings, and waited for this couple to enter the frame. When asked how long they had known each other, they reacted as captured, stating only a few days.

Gregersen is able to immediately draw parallels between this approach and the way deliberate leaders work at building the layers of creative insight from the back—just as Abell does. “This is how I interpret Ed Catmull’s efforts at Pixar,” writes Gregersen in his recent Harvard Business Review article, “What Great Leaders Can Learn from Great Photographers.” “Read Creativity, Inc., and you see him thinking in the broadest sense about how to establish the environment and infrastructure that will keep people constantly floating new ideas, and ensure that those ideas are creatively, productively challenged.”

Gregersen also shares the example of A.G. Lafley at Procter & Gamble, who spends most of his energy on setting the stage for his organization to recognize a good idea when it surfaces. “Instead of declaring a particular innovation he wants to pursue, he constantly poses key, cornerstone questions … How can we delight consumers when they buy our products? How can they be more delighted when using them? Everything else builds forward from that.”

Participants of the Leadership and the Lens program increase their capacity to frame new possibilities for their organizations, even as they learn to craft more compelling images. These concepts of framing the scene and working back to front immediately resonated with Higgins. “We asked ourselves, when as a leader do you look for interesting things happening in your workplace or explore unknown territory? When do you kick in the managerial thing—the technical approach—and when do you create a dynamic environment for your people to work in?”

When Higgins and his peers talk about dynamic leadership, they’re referring to leaders and teams of employees who feel comfortable with not knowing it all. “When confronted with a hard problem, immediate action can often compound it,” says Higgins. “What if you step back and look at the full picture, the elements, the layers within the problem. A dynamic approach means staying curious, asking open-ended questions, keeping your eyes wide open, and embracing those you lead for what they are seeing. You might be surprised!”

“It also means using different lenses,” adds Higgins. “Sometimes you need to look with a wider lens, wider aperture. If you’re hyper focused, only using your tight lens, you might miss the real revelation. As Donald Rumsfield, former Secretary of Defense once said, it’s the unknown unknown that will kill you. Leaders must always be in pursuit of the unknown unknown that will kill their organization, their mission.”

“Certainly, one of my key takeaways from this program was to take the time to look harder at the environment I’m leading. But awareness will never be perfect,” says Higgins. “And here’s an example. Last year I was hiking Death Valley with my youngest son. It’s was pre-dawn, we were waiting for the sun to come up, and all of a sudden, I get this amazing purple pinkish light. I’m excited, I’m in awe. I get a couple pictures of the sunrise. Then I turn around to look behind me—I’m looking for a different perspective. I see a tumbleweed bush on the edge of the mountain with the salt fields below in the distant valley and it was being lit up by this gorgeous light. I took a great picture, so I thought. Later in the day, my son and I compared our work. He captured a couple cuddling on a stone wall, warmly embracing, enjoying this spectacular sunrise together. That was the photograph. I had missed it.”

In addition to Leadership and the Lens, Higgins has also completed Neuroscience for Leadership, Applied Neuroscience: Unleashing Brain Power for You and Your People, and Negotiation for Executives, weaving together courses that earned him an MIT Sloan Executive Certificate in Management and Leadership, benefiting his own leadership and those he had coached.

“I consider myself a lifelong learner. I get excited about learning; the novelty and application of new experiences. I also really appreciate how approachable and personable the faculty at MIT have been. After the program, I reconnected with Hal. He shared his current thinking, his experiences, and I shared mine—it was remarkable how we built on what each had to offer. I think in many ways photography gives you the forward leaning motivation to have these kinds of conversations.”

Higgins encourages other executive to let go of their inhibitions and try this course, for reasons larger than the lessons learned. “This is not only about you the leader, it’s about you the person. Recharge your batteries with new perspectives so you can go back into the workplace and perform at your highest level. Those that you lead and your organization are counting on it.”

The next sessions of Leadership and the Lens: Learning at the Intersection of Innovation and Image-Making will be offered October 2-4, 2017 and Sep 24-26, 2018

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