Creative Leadership: Piloting the Course

[re-posted from the Minneapolis College of Art &Design’s Sustainable Design Online blog]

A master’s program in sustainable design? Taught completely online? Led by a biologist? Requiring a course in leadership? What are they thinking?

For those comfortable with traditional design programs, these sorts of questions must come to mind when looking at MCAD’s newly launched MA in Sustainable Design program. But for those of us out there who are relentlessly exploring and developing and driving solutions to the world’s biggest challenges, the responses to these questions are:

Finally!  That will create so many new opportunities! What a fantastic perspective!  Why didn’t we think of that before?  They are thinking so progressively—and so pragmatically — about what the students need, and what the world desperately needs, to succeed and thrive into the future. Right on!

When the director of MCAD’s Sustainable Design Online (SDO) program asked if I could create and teach a pilot course in leadership for the SDO program based on my work in Leadership Inspired by Nature, I was impressed and inspired and jumped at the chance. Reality hit a few days into MCAD’s Online Course Development Workshop (a 5-week online Blackboard course development and online teacher training course required for new SDO instructors and orchestrated through MCAD’s Online Learning Department): this was going to be far more challenging (i.e., frustrating) and time consuming than I thought. However, I also quickly recognized that I was developing tremendous compassion for my students-to-be and having to practice the very skills and attitudes that I would soon be asking them to learn. This was another example of the progressive pragmatism (and quality control) that makes MCAD’s SDO program so unique for both faculty and students.

The driving idea behind the Creative Leadership course is that sustainable designers face the dual challenges of having to forward new ideals (sustainability) and new ideas (design) in a largely conventional world and yet often feel ill equipped to lead these charges. To succeed as sustainable designers in a world that is rapidly changing with volatility in environmental, economic, and social fronts, students leaving the program need to become leaders – Creative Leaders.

Many have said that leadership cannot be taught, it can only be learned. It is also said that leadership is not a goal to be achieved, it is a lifetime journey. With that in mind, the Creative Leadership course was designed to equip students with a range of knowledge, skills, and understanding, through a variety of formats and viewpoints, activities and assignments, reflections and personal planning, in order to launch each of them on their own personal journeys to becoming Creative Leaders.

Because this was a pilot course, none of us really knew what to expect; the results were (from my side of the virtual classroom) fantastic. I was humbled at how much more the students learned than I could possibly have taught. I was inspired by the students’ openness, drive, creativity, compassion, and engagement – with the course and with each other. And I was blown away by their work. This was not a design class, so I was far less concerned with the design elements of their work and far more so on the functionality and reflection of lessons learned, and yet they managed to excel at both.

“This was a fantastic course and I never would have guessed it was the first time it was being offered online – it was very close to my “ideal” in terms of what I was hoping to get out of taking a course online – some lectures by the professors (videos), exposure to lots of great readings and resources, interesting assignments, class interaction, easy access to the professor for questions and conversations and feeling like I really learned a lot despite the “distance learning” aspect. Overall, a really great course and experience.”

(Student feedback, Summer 2012)

I am now eager to turn the 10-week elective pilot course into a 15-week required course in the second year of the MA. As I take the time to reflect on the summer course, I believe the biggest change will be just that – more time for reflection (which as the students of 2012 would tell you) is core to becoming a Creative Leader.

In addition to being the instructor, I became an inspired student of these emerging creative leaders. I began to realize how much I was learning from them, how far they were carrying me down the path of my own Creative Leadership journey, and I thank them all very much for that.