There’s one fact that seems to stand out for anyone who’s read Rama Gheerawo’s 2022 book, Creative Leadership: Born from Design. It likely sticks with people because it seems so absurd as to border on very bleak comedy, but also because it reveals a fundamental truth about how unnervingly simple us humans can be.
In the very first chapter, we learn that a study of Fortune 500 companies showed that (in America), something as arbitrary as height can be the key to the C-suite: 4% of adult men in the general US population are 6’2” or taller, but 30% in the CEO sample reached those heights. It feels pathetically caveman-like that even now, in the 21st century, we implicitly place power in the hands of those who are taller than us – or that those taller than us have a natural propensity to get that power for themselves.
Clearly, the idea of leadership needs a shake-up, and if anyone knows a thing or two about that, it’s Gheerawo, director of the Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design at the Royal College of Art (RCA) in London, where he’s worked for two decades having initially worked in and studied industrial design and engineering. The centre focuses on inclusive design processes and projects, and how these link with broader developments across things like design thinking and creative leadership. It has so far completed more than 300 projects, with Gheerawo personally leading 75.
For Gheerawo, issues around leadership really came to a head around 15 years ago, he says, when he found himself “really disillusioned” with the constant and innumerable ways the world excluded certain groups of people, and how much of that could be solved if there was far more willingness from decision-makers to involve design early on as a key tool for problem-solving.