Margaret Heffernan, Creative Leader
In one of the online MBA courses I coach at Athabasca University we ask students to identify an individual they would like to be their leadership mentor. They must describe the leader and explain what attributes that person possesses from which, as leaders themselves, they might receive guidance and inspiration. Every year I prepare this assignment along with my students. This year I chose Margaret Heffernan — experienced leader, gifted speaker, and brilliant writer as my mentor. Of course Heffernan hadn’t a clue…
Who is Margaret Heffernan?
Heffernan was born in Texas, raised in Holland and educated at Cambridge University, which explains her slightly American, slightly British accent. Her credentials are impeccable. She was a television producer with the BBC; she ran a trade association, which represented the interests of independent film and television producers; she developed interactive multimedia products and was named one of the Internet’s Top 100 Silicon Alley Reporter and was named one of the Top 100 Media Executives by the Hollywood Reporter.
She is the author of five books, the third, Willful Blindness (Anchor, 2012,) was a finalist for the Financial Times/Goldman Sachs Best Business Book award, and in 2014 the Financial Times named it one of the “best business books of the decade.” Her TED talks have been seen by over 6 million people and she served as CEO for information Corporation, ZineZone Corporation and iCAST Corporation. (Margaret Heffernan website)
What would I learn from Heffernan as a creative leader?
One of the tasks of a leader is to be articulate about the governing principles of the organization. Most people talk about communication as the key to leading effectively. I say a leader must do more than just communicate. A leader must articulate why the organization she leads exists and its purpose; where the organization aspires to go and what it dreams of becoming; and how it intends to get there. The leader must be clear in her choice of words, enunciating them with precision and passion, plus she must make sense to the people she leads. Heffernan has this gift of articulation. Watch any one of her lectures or Ted Talks and you’ll see what I mean.
She stands in one place yet moves effortlessly from one idea to the next completing the landscape of her thoughts with stories, advice and words of inspiration. I would love to be coached by Margaret (I think she would insist that I call her Margaret….) in ways I might improve how I speak in public.
What would I learn from Margaret Heffernan as a writer?
Good grief — so much. She has written scholarly books that have made a difference in the business world. She is scholarly but not esoteric. Some scholars speak only in the language of their domain, which means they are speaking to each other, excluding those of us who don’t know the domain but yearn to do so. To me, effective scholars can translate their ideas in a language I can understand. Scholars hate to do this “dumbing down,” but I believe it’s vital to make ideas accessible to anyone with an interest. Margaret Heffernan does this through stories that illustrate her ideas without losing the intellectual honesty or complexity of her subject matter. I would learn the importance of writing like that.
In the words of Warren Bennis, a once formidable leadership scholar himself, “to express rather than to impress.”
My favourite book of hers is Willful Blindness (Anchor, 2012). [image of the book] In it she chastises all of us, but especially leaders for willfully ignoring the right thing to do in favour of the most expedient. “When we are willfully blind,” she writes, “it is in the presence of information that we could know and should know, but don’t know because it makes us feel better not to know.” (p. 246) This is particularly important for leaders of creativity to grasp and work hard to address.
How does she suggest we “unearth these unmentionables?”
- Seek disconfirmation. Assign someone to be the devil’s advocate and be clear about the role and thank the person for taking the role on.
- Ask: What are all the reasons we are right? What are all the reasons we are wrong?
- Bring in outsiders to identify the unconscious knowledge that is embedded in the organization and bring it to the surface.
- Use coaches who ask disagreeable questions, who have the best interests of the organization at heart and who will think alongside you.
- Find someone (or yourself if you can) to give you the unvarnished truth.
- Be a critical thinker. Resist the urge to be a pleaser.
- Don’t be afraid to change your mind. It’s not a sign of weakness.
- Develop a sense of history to be alert to emerging trends and signals.
- Be willing to accept the noise that accompanies conflict.
- Ask: What could I know, should I know, that I don’t know. Just what am I missing here?
Watch her TED talk on Willful Blindness.
Heffernan is making a strong case for critical thinking, but when you think about it, her suggestions could also be seen as ways to lead creativity, creatively.
Thank you, Margaret.