The Curiosity Chronicles

Musings on Meaning.
I'm Paul Bennett. I work at IDEO. I'm a designer. I'm curious.

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  • March 19, 2012 4:24 pm

    Curious About…Role Models. 关于榜样的好奇心

    (The next installment of the Chinese version of this column, presented as always in its original Mandarin and English.)

    A few months ago I spent a fascinating evening in Shanghai. 

    We had invited a group of young Chinese female entrepreneurs to come into our office to have dinner with us and talk about their experiences of building their respective businesses. We wanted to learn from them and see what principles could be applied to other parts of our business. I kicked off the evening by quoting the Mao Tse Tung proverb (in appalling Chinese, I’m afraid) “Women Hold Up Half The Sky,” and we went from there. Each woman introduced herself; they talked eloquently about their lives and where they had come from – in some cases from poor backgrounds in surrounding villages, about the sacrifices their families had made to get them there. There were tears and laughter and lots of outpouring as they talked at length about their own personal philosophies, in many cases freely quoting Confucius and other ancient Chinese traditions. It was very moving. I was personally blown away by these women; their strength, tenacity and ability to immediately connect to one another emotionally; they came in as strangers but did not leave as such. I remember thinking to myself at the time: “You have a lot to learn here.”

    Another image that is etched into my brain is one of Michele Obama digging in the garden of the White House in Washington, DC, a couple of years ago. She was dressed in jeans and work boots and was laughing. While the organic garden that she was in the process of creating will provide food for the first family’s meals and formal dinners, its most important role, Mrs. Obama has said in the press, will be to educate children about healthful, locally grown fruit and vegetables at a time when obesity and diabetes have become a national concern. As a diabetic, this particularly resonated with me.

    “My hope,” the first lady said in an interview in her East Wing office, “is that through children, they will begin to educate their families and that will, in turn, begin to educate our communities.”

    Twenty-three fifth graders from Bancroft Elementary School in Washington helped her dig up the soil for the 1,100-square-foot plot, in a spot visible to passers-by on E Street, just below the Obama girls’ swing set. This was not an isolated example; she has followed-though by vocally supporting the Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation, whose mission is to reduce childhood obesity by 2015.

    To me, both of these examples share something in common. They are of women, leading in that unique way that women leaders excel: by sharing emotional stories and personally connecting in the first case, and by doing rather than endlessly debating in the second. It brought to mind British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s famous line: “If you want anything said, ask a man. If you want anything done, ask a woman.” 

    One of the questions I am asked frequently in my work at IDEO is “Who do you admire, who are your role models?” Pondering this question, I realized recently that many of the people I admire in business (and actually in life) are women.

    I was lucky enough to meet Chinese businesswoman and television host Yang Lan a year or so ago on a trip to Beijing and was really impressed with her vision of enabling other women to become powerful leaders. Although I don’t speak Mandarin, I have watched some episodes of her TV show “Her Village,” aimed at the large community of young urban women, and it feels empowering and groundbreaking. I saw her recent talk at TED Global in Oxford in the UK and was really struck by her passionate delivery and the fair and supportive way with which she talks about a complex subject; the internet in China. I was very inspired by her.

    And finally the biggest influence on me personally, as I am sure it is for many of us: my mother. Leaving her home when she was in her teens to travel the world with my military father, living in rural Pakistan, India, Singapore, Sri Lanka and finally setting back in northern England, she taught me the most valuable skill of all – to keep my eyes open, look at the world around me and not to cast judgment on people that were ‘different’ to us but to learn from them and see them as our equals: it makes perfect sense that now, in my role as a global leader of a company that works in many countries and talks to people from all walks of life and cultures, one whose currency is human-centered design and empathy, that my mother’s words ring more true than ever - and frankly, are so deeply ingrained in me that they are simply a part of who I am. I get to bring her influence on me to others and pass this along to my clients and colleagues.

    So why am I telling you all of this? Being inspired by others is one of the most important aspects of leadership in my opinion, and having role models is a way to have something to constantly strive for. And work towards. It keeps us grounded and reminds us that we are all human. Whether it’s your mother, a young women who moved you with the story of her journey from village to boardroom or a mother who just happens to be digging a vegetable plot for her children to inspire the rest of the nation to eat better in the most important garden in the world, nothing helps us retain a sense of self better than realizing that there are other people out there in the world that we can learn from. 





    当天,25名来自华盛顿班克罗夫特小学的五年级学生一起帮助第一夫人在1100平方英尺的培植地上翻土,来往于E街上的行人可以清楚地看到里面的情景,而这个位置正好位于奥巴马两个女儿的秋千架附近。不仅如此,总统夫人还公开支持“健康体重承诺基金会”(Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation),该基金会的使命是在2015年之前降低儿童肥胖症的发病率。






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