What Great Leaders Can Learn from Great Photographers

A “compose and wait” approach works for more than taking pictures. Deliberate leaders work at building layers of creative insight from back to front.

Almost everyone is a worker in some way, but only a minority deserve to be called craftspeople. This is especially true of leaders. We don’t often think of leaders as artisans, but like good craftspeople, good leaders go about their work thoughtfully and purposefully.

Hal Gregersen

Hal Gregersen

These leaders want every piece of work they produce to be the best it can be, and to bear their stamp. Some even go a step further. They reflect on their craft and articulate what’s distinctive about it. Doing this delivers the benefit of making it, to some extent, teachable. They like to develop the skill in others.

Sam Abell falls into the camp of truly reflective practitioners. With 33 years as a National Geographic photographer — earning two images in the magazine’s “50 Greatest Photographs of National Geographic” exhibit — he is a master of his craft. But he is also unusually aware of how he does his work.

Abell likes to say that he’s a “from the back layer” photographer. When he composes a shot, he thinks about the layers from the background to the foreground and how they relate to one another. And, while an amateur would likely seize on the foreground subject, Abell begins with the most distant part of the setting and builds from there.

Abell has figured out that the way to get a great photograph is not to take it, but to make it. Framing his first photographs as a boy, he fought his instinct to follow a moving subject with his lens. Instead he learned to heed his father’s advice: “Compose and wait, Sammy.” Establish how you want those more static background layers to appear, and — if you’ve chosen your spot well — the dynamic element you need to complete the image will eventually enter the frame. A woman will stride across the plaza. A bison will amble over the grassland. A sailor will toss a rope. The key, Abell learned, is not to chase its unfurling arc: “Let the rope come to you.”

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I share this because, as a leadership professor, I’m working to make “compose and wait” my own habit.

I got to know Abell when I did a one-on-one mentorship through the Santa Fe Photographic Workshop. It quickly became clear that his mentorship would guide me on multiple levels. I was researching the thesis that great leaders and teachers are gifted at asking “catalytic” questions, which allow their people to move forward in especially creative ways. That thesis fits Abell perfectly. What I didn’t expect is that, in the insights he shared, I would find direct application for the enterprise leaders I advise.

Managers at every level in organizations also populate a range − from amateurs to artisans. When amateurs look for new insights that will take their companies’ performance to the next level, they tend to chase trends. They look at game-changing work by others and assume it was the result of fast reflexes and luck.

More deliberate leaders believe great opportunities are made, and they work at building the layers of creative insight from the back, as Abell does. This is how I interpret Ed Catmull’s efforts at Pixar. Read Creativity, Inc., and you see him thinking about how to establish the environment and infrastructure that will keep people floating new ideas and ensure that those ideas are productively challenged. Institutions like the Pixar “Brain Trust” and organizational designs that support filmmaker-led projects form the foundation for viewer delight.

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A.G. Lafley, former CEO at Procter & Gamble, operated in a similar back-to-front way, with a focus on setting the stage for his organization to recognize a good idea. Instead of declaring a particular innovation he wants to pursue, he constantly posed key questions. Two of his favorites: 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.

How do leaders like Catmull and Lafley do this? One way to describe it is they’re framing the background conditions that will allow creative thinking to flourish — in large part by tamping down their impulses to be hard-charging, full of answers and quick to intervene. Then they attend to the next layer, encouraging questions from themselves and others that will break down outdated assumptions and open new realms of problem-solving. Having composed those steady-state layers deliberately, they can then wait — with the confidence that some fleeting, highly valuable insight will materialize.

Most important, when that element crosses their line of sight, they’ll see it for what it is: a flash of brilliance that deserves to be captured, and that will justify all the background work that provided a proper setting.

Hal Gregersen is executive director of the MIT Leadership Center, and a senior lecturer in leadership and innovation at the MIT Sloan School of Management. 

This article was originally published by Harvard Business Review on Oct. 11, 2016.

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