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This past weekend I went to see the Matisse/Diebenkorn exhibit at MOMA with friends. The exhibit follows Diebenkorn’s progression from his early career through his latest work. Throughout the exhibit, Matisse’s paintings are placed next to Diebenkorn’s, showing how Matisse influenced Diebenkorn’s work. I love art but the relationship between Matisse and Diebenkorn was most interesting to me. Even though Matisse and Diebenkorn never met, Matisse’s work influenced Diebenkorn just through the medium, through the work itself. Diebenkorn’s work started out as very amateur and similar to Matisse but progressed into different, original work. This got me thinking about originality and about the role of teachers and influencers in our lives. Many people talk about how nothing we come up with is original – everything is just an idea from somewhere else. This may be true but then how are there so many new ideas and works emerging all the time? How do people come up with original ideas and works? As leaders, we also learn our skills from our leaders, teachers, and influencers we choose to follow. How do we create original, new products? How do we come up with ideas for how to improve our team’s work? How do we lead with authenticity – a style that is our own? The exhibit reconfirmed my belief in the importance of our teachers, influencers, and creative synthesis. 

Teachers and Influencers

Teachers and influencers are sources for skills, ideas, and support. Teachers are important guides that help us learn skills and tools for producing work and new ideas. They help us find the ‘what’ and ‘how’ we want to contribute to the world. Teachers inspire us and also help us to find inspiration and influencers. In Deibenkorn’s case, his professor at Stanford led him to Matisse’s work. We often find deeply insightful teachers at school; however, you don’t need access to higher-level education to find a teacher, learn new skills, or find inspiration. In our rapidly changing and evolving society, learning no longer stops after school. It’s an important, ongoing process. You can find a teacher in all aspects of life, throughout your whole life. You can attend a class in something different from your day-to-day work or in something that could add value to work and interests. You can learn from your leader or a mentor at work by asking questions and progressing toward new roles and responsibilities. I have learned most from my leaders at work, professors, and amazing teachers in a wide range of areas outside of school and work as well. Find teachers you love to learn from and live life to learn. Also, be selective about what types of content, lessons, leaders, and teachers you’re following. Who are you choosing to learn from day-to-day? Why? 

Influencers are people that impact our beliefs and opinions about the world. Their ideas and work resonate with us. We find their work and ideas interesting, relevant, and important. Influencers give us new ideas, perspectives, and insights through their works – art, writing, spoken words, etc. Even though Matisse and Deibenkorn never met, Matisse’s work influenced Deibenkorn just through the medium, the work itself. It was cool to see how Deibenkorn progressed from a very amateur artist, almost copying Matisse, to having a style all his own. We can find influencers all around us. You probably have found yourself reading an article or a book by someone profoundly inspiring and interesting that you then start to follow. LinkedIn even has labeled some successful members “Influencers” that you can follow and read the articles they share. Influencers are the authors of books we choose to read, the movies we choose see, and the TV shows we choose to watch. Influencers are our friends and family we choose to hang out with. Influencers can also be our environments. Matisse drew inspiration from Paris and Nice. Deibenkorn resided in the US and drew inspiration from the west. Our environment has such a huge impact on the work we produce and what we believe is important. Since moving to California, my work and beliefs have changed dramatically and that is reflected in my book, Awake Leadership. Find radical, interesting, kind people to follow – people with attributes you want to emulate. Explore a new city or part of the word. Go to conferences, concerts, and art exhibits to find new ideas. Who are your influencers? Where do you draw inspiration from? Why?

Creative Synthesis

Teachers and influencers guide us to learn skills and ideas. They inspire us and they have an huge impact on the direction of our work and our beliefs. However, they can’t create our original work for us and they can’t tell us how to lead in our own, authentic way. We have to do that for ourselves. When we synthesize the ideas, concepts, and skills we have learned from our teachers and influencers, we can create original works and ideas. The creativity part becomes important when we consider how we synthesize the ideas and skills we have gathered. This is why people that come up with original ideas are also considered creative. They have a knack for skillfully bringing together the best of what they have gathered into something new that adds value for others and themselves. So, though the disparate ideas and skills you gather may not be original on their own, the product of synthesizing them in a new, creative way is original. 

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Three Tips for Starting Now

If synthesis of ideas and skills you gather is important for coming up with something original, then the first step in generating original works and ideas is to have multiple teachers and influencers. You don’t want to have so many that you only skim the surface of what each has to teach. However, having two or more teachers or influencers that really spark your interest means you have teachings and inspiration to synthesize into something new. Though Matisse was one of Deibenkorn’s primary influencers, he had many people serve as his teachers and influencers along the way.

One way to begin practicing your creative synthesis today is to start a daily writing habit (page 25 in the Vision section of Awake Leadership). By writing daily, you can bring awareness to areas of your life that could be improved. You can acknowledge practices and products you use that could be improved. You can write about aspects of your work that you like and aspects you don’t like. You can reflect on your skills and ideas and come up with new things you want to learn. As you add new skills and ideas to your tool belt through learning from teachers and influencers, you synthesize them to fill in blind spots in your own life. Eventually, after dedicated practice, you start to work through the obstacles by generating ideas for improvements and new ways to add value to your work and your life. 

Coming up with something original is a creative process, and it may take many versions and a lot of practice before really making it something that is an improvement on something that already exists or something completely new that can add value for yourself, your team, and your company or organization. In my opinion, the biggest barrier to being original is not producing anything at all – not making an effort to practice synthesizing your ideas and skills into something new and sharing what you come up with. You have to start somewhere. Start practicing and start gathering feedback. You can’t let fear and doubt stop you, but you should stay humble and constantly question your work and test it for feedback. Until you try, until you test it, you will never know if it could be the next big, original, successful idea that moves your company or the world forward in a positive way. The feedback should come from others and from you: what others say they like and what you see and feel is right. Your original ideas and works might not be something concrete like a painting or a product. Your original work may be teaching something in a new way, writing a book, or leading in a way that is new and specifically beneficial for your organization. Try out different types of works and ideas and see what you enjoy as well as where you and others see benefit. 

In systems thinking terms, the inputs are our teachers and our inspiration and the outputs are a creative synthesis of those teachings and influences manifested through our mind and body. Original! That makes it sound simple but creative synthesis takes intentional practice, observation, and feedback. The exhibit reminded me that, in all areas, of life, it’s pretty universal that our original work is the synthesis of the teachers we choose to learn from and the work we choose to expose ourselves to. The practices and concepts that I learned from my teachers, leaders, and influencers I have had throughout my life, especially over the past two or three years, came together in my book and come together every day in my other works and in my own life. Remember: You can come up with original works, ideas, and a leadership style all your own that benefit yourself and others. 

Who are you choosing to follow and learn from? Who are your teachers and influences? What would your exhibit look like? 

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Thanks for reading!

Also, I’m passionate about this stuff. It’s true! For exercises and tips for working on your authentic leadership style, please check out my new book, Awake LeadershipHere 

Find our more about the Matisse/Diebenkorn exhibit: Here