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04.16.10

Does Your Leadership Have “White Space?”

In the visual arts, white space is that area that is left blank or perhaps more accurately, open. It should not be thought of as unused space because it is actually an important part of the design itself. It is an “active” void. It adds to or enhances what the artist is trying to communicate. It clears away the clutter and allows the message to be heard.
white space
Effective use of white space in graphic design

As leaders, we need to be secure enough to create white space in our leadership; to create not emptiness, but an active void. A place where those we lead can jump in and participate. It’s about making room for others to express themselves. Too often, leaders feel the need to be omnipresent; directing everything that happens. This stifles those they lead and stunts their growth.

Wendy Richmond is a visual artist, author, educator and a contributor to Communication Arts. In a recent column she discusses the need for white space in teaching art. She provides a wonderful example of the value of white space as applied in teaching and leadership:
In my teaching, I use the idea of white space as a metaphor. When I develop a syllabus, I also design the activities for which I will not be present. On the first day of class, I tell my students, “By the end of this course, I hope to be the least important person in this room.” I believe that in addition to providing the content, my role is to create an environment that contains an active void. I need to disappear enough for my students to jump in and fill the learning environment with their own excitement and discovery. Again, as in my artwork, it takes confidence to leave that space empty.

I have a friend who teaches memoir writing. In every session, each student reads a short piece of his own writing. In the first two classes, my friend makes notes as she listens, and then delivers a constructive critique. In the next class, she institutes a change. After each reading, instead of delivering her critique first, she waits for the participation of the other students. Inevitably, there is silence; an awkward void where there is no response.

Initially, my friend found it hard to remain quiet. She feels that it is her job to keep the class engaged, to be imparting knowledge. In other words, as she told me, she had to make sure they are getting their money’s worth. It required confidence to not fill the silence with her critique. She had to trust that this emptiness was essential; it allowed the students to develop their own responses. When her students began to talk, there was a new energy that continued not only during the coffee breaks, but between classes as well.
Creating white space in your leadership requires balance. Leadership is an art. White space doesn’t reflect a lack of leadership or structure as it might seem. On the contrary, strong leadership is what makes it possible. A leader has to shape that space in an ongoing way to ensure that they are allowing room for people to develop themselves, contribute and lead. The question is: do you as a leader have the confidence to do that?

Posted by Michael McKinney at 08:08 AM
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