Fireside Chat presenter: Creativity can help leaders, change workforce culture

Lecturer speaking during presentation
Dr. Aithan Shapira, a lecturer with the MIT Sloan School of Management, delivers his presentation during President Philomena V. Mantella's Fireside Chat.
Image credit - Kendra Stanley-Mills

For Aithan Shapira, his position as a lecturer at the MIT Sloan School of Management seems to share little connection with his background as an artist.

But, it’s that creative force and the willingness of painters, musicians and writers to proceed in new directions that Shapira believes can develop tomorrow’s leaders. 

Shapira joined President Philomena V. Mantella and interim Provost Chris Plouff for a Fireside Chat October 27 at the DeVos Center on Grand Valley’s Pew Grand Rapids campus. The Fireside Chats are an initiative by Mantella, bringing in who she called "thought activators" for discussions.

Shapira said he had been coaching and critiquing professional artists around the world before approaching the dean at Sloan with the idea for a course that would help students tap into their creative spirit. 

“There’s something about how we create and what creativity is,” Shapira said, recalling his conversation with the dean. “It’s not that orange and blue are opposite colors. It’s what you do and how you use them. Are you asking the questions? 

“There are some challenges in the world that people are looking at. It’s not about the products they are putting out in the world. It’s their attachments to the products, and they’re not connecting with each other or with themselves.”

Lecturer speaking during presentation
Dr. Aithan Shapira delivers his presentation during President Philomena V. Mantella's Fireside Chat.
Image credit - Kendra Stanley-Mills
Speakers hug on stage
President Philomena V. Mantella and Dr. Aithan Shapira hug on stage following the Fireside Chat at Loosemore Auditorium.
Image credit - Kendra Stanley-Mills
Audience listening to presenter
Audience members listen to Dr. Aithan Shapira deliver his presentation.
Image credit - Kendra Stanley-Mills

Shapira pointed to two surveys that show what corporations value from their workforce. 

A 2020 survey by the World Economic Forum showed creativity is the top skill set employers are looking for from their employees, while a 2019 IBM survey of CEOs shows they value the ability to adapt to change in their employees.

He offered a scenario artists frequently face to illustrate the point. 

“I might spend a month on a painting, working 12 hours a day,” said Shapira. “Then I’ll get an idea, mix up some paint and then cover three-quarters of the canvas. I’m never getting it back. It’s gone. It’s a violent act which I do to myself. 

“Cherish that moment. What are you willing to let go of in order to serve something greater than yourself?”

Mantella said a lecture Shapira delivered regarding the value of uncertainty connected with her. 

“My wish for leaders is more curiosity and less certitude,” said Mantella. “In my life, leadership was about the destination, and we’re here, so how do we get there?

“All of that changed with the pandemic because you couldn’t change the circumstances around you.”

Shapira responded by saying the act of not knowing is as important as knowing.

“We live in a world that polarizes things, and we privilege knowing over not knowing,” he said 

“What we could all do is practice the not knowing part. It’s not like mistakes aren’t going to happen, it’s what we do when they happen.

“What I might need is someone else who says, ‘I don’t know either. Let’s go do this.’ If we can emphasize that, and be better skilled at that, that’s when things can open up.”

Plouff added Shapira’s work at MIT and with his company, Tilt, affirms Grand Valley’s mission.  

“Here at Grand Valley, we value inquiry, community and innovation,” said Plouff. “We are rooted in the liberal education tradition, but we’re also blending it with our professional skill-building. 

“I see and hear the things you are doing, and it really resonates with me in terms of what we are trying to accomplish.”