What Great Leaders Can Learn from Great Photographers–Hal Gregersen

Hal Gregersen, Executive Director of the MIT Leadership Center

Executive Director of the MIT Leadership Center, Hal Gregersen

From Harvard Business Review 

Almost everyone on this planet 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.

These good leaders want every piece 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 they do that is special or distinctive. Doing this delivers the great benefit of making it, to at least some extent, teachable. They like to develop the skill in others.

Sam Abell falls into the latter camp of truly reflective practitioners. With 33 years’ experience as a photographer for National Geographic — earning not one but 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 what he does.

For example, a favorite observation of his is to say “I’m a ‘from-the-back-layer’ photographer.” What he means is that, when he composes a shot, he thinks about the layers from background to foreground and how they relate to one another. And, while an amateur would likely seize on the foreground subject (sometimes not even noticing what is behind it), he begins with the most distant part of the setting and builds forward from there.

Abell has figured out that the way to get a great photograph is not to take it but to make it. For him, framing his first photographs as a boy, this meant fighting his instinct to follow a moving subject with his lens. Instead he learned to follow his dad’s advice: “Compose and wait, Sammy. Compose … and wait.” 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.”

Read the full post at Harvard Business Review.

Hal Gregersen is the Executive Director of the MIT Leadership Center and a Senior Lecturer in Leadership and Innovation at the MIT Sloan School of Management where he pursues his vocation of executive teaching, coaching, and research by exploring how leaders in business, government, and society discover provocative new ideas, develop the human and organizational capacity to realize those ideas, and ultimately deliver positive, powerful results

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