Leadership Through Innovation: A Discussion with Walter Isaacson

At Workday Rising in Chicago earlier this month, Walter Isaacson, president and CEO of the Aspen Institute, spoke to a group of senior executives about the role of leadership in nurturing innovation and collaboration.

Isaacson previously served as chairman and CEO of CNN and editor of TIME Magazine, and is the author of several books, including the authorized biography of Steve Jobs and a soon-to-be-published biography of Leonardo da Vinci. We had a chance to sit down with him before the discussion.

You’ve said the most important lesson of innovation is that it lives at the intersection of the humanities and technology. Why is that?

Creativity means you’re going to create something that connects with other humans. If it doesn’t connect, a product isn’t going to make it. How do you connect with other people? There’s a pretty simple formula: beauty matters. Beauty moves us. It connects with us.

If you’re an engineer, it helps to have some sense of narrative, of beauty, of what connects with human emotions. Likewise, people who love the humanities, they need to cross the divide, too—learn what a transistor does, how to program a computer. People who can stand at that intersection, not be siloed into a specific discipline, are the ones who will make the most creative innovations.

Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian ManYou see that throughout history. Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man is a symbol of the connection of art and science and spirit. That body he drew involved more than 200 measurements and anatomies and scientific work to the get the proportions right. But unlike his two friends who made similar drawings, Leonardo made his drawing one of unnecessary beauty. That connects to our humanity and makes it truly unique and creative.

You’ve written that collaboration happens when you bring people and technology together. Why is that?

We biographers have a dirty secret: we make it seem like a lone genius goes out to the garage and has a light bulb moment. But if you look throughout history, almost every great discovery and innovation came from teams.

All the great inventions of our time—the personal computer, the internet, the transistor, the microchip—we don’t know who invented them, because they were invented by teams. They were collaboratively done. Great leaders put together great teams, and a leader’s ability to draw from people of different backgrounds and different interests tends to be the thing that sparks creativity.

During the Renaissance, you suddenly had people working together across disciplines. Chemists working with cloth merchants, jewelry makers, with architects and artisans. And they invented many things, including beautiful silk fabrics, but also the science of perspective. If you hadn’t thrown all those people together, these innovations wouldn’t have happened.

Whether it’s Florence of 1470 or Silicon Valley in the 1970s, magic happens when you get a mix of people together.

Automation is radically reshaping industries today. What is this going to mean for companies and employees?

The connection of the arts and the sciences, and the purpose that we bring as humans, drives both collaboration and creativity. In the end, that’s what’s going to help us as humans of the 21st Century win the argument of machines versus people that goes back at least to the dawn of the Industrial Revolution.

If we don’t have those wonderful connections across disciplines, if we don’t understand how the humanities and the arts and beauty connect to science and engineering and design, then there will be machines that’ll leave us behind.

But as we saw in the 1840s, when the weaving industry increased a hundredfold after the creation of punch cards for weaving machines, the combination of people and technology can be disruptive. The creativity of humans and the processing power of machines, joined together, will increase the productivity of our society and our ability to focus on what we as humans do best, which is our notion of beauty, our notion of emotion, our ability to create and collaborate.

What advice would you give to a leader who wants to drive greater creativity and collaboration?

When Steve Jobs was near the end of his life, I asked him about his legacy and the significance of his work. Steve had come to look upon life as if it were a river; a great flow we stand beside. And if you’re successful and smart, you get to take a lot of things out of the river. Wonderful products and ideas: algebra, microchips, works of art.

We get to a stage in our lives where we start thinking about how to move from being successful to being significant. Having an impact, changing people’s lives. You realize that what really matters is not what you take out of the river, but what you put back into it.

Truly great people make that special effort to leave an impact and affect the lives of others. A great leader is going to inspire people to strive for significance, so that everyone feels like they’re not only taking things from the river but contributing back to it.