Confluent Dynamics – Collaborative Leadership


Our industries are in the midst of a magnificent boom and concomitant crisis. It seems the world of themed entertainment and experience is at capacity in terms of experienced, skilled creative, tech and production personnel to design, build and open projects currently underway…and there are even more projects coming off the boards as this is written.

Ground is well-broken on massive, new, from-the-ground-up theme parks across all hemispheres. Beyond that are vast expansions of, and new Lands in, iconic parks, renovations of legacy installations and dynamic ideation of properties and experiences we haven’t yet seen.

It’s a tsunami of abundance…

Word on the street is that <name a conglomerate> is scrambling to find experienced people to support the myriad business plans and projects already in process; not to mention what’s coming down the pike.

At the same time, there are scores – if not hundreds (if not even more) – of smart, talented young people coming out of design schools, universities, technical schools and basements who possess the “book-learnin’,” the valuable objective knowledge and the passion that is going to drive Entertainment and Experience into the future.

…and these two Rivers of Project and Resource are flowing together at a moment of synchronicity that stands to greatly benefit our industries and very likely completely evolve the way things are designed, done, sold and experienced for the next few decades.

Thus, this Convergence of Harmonic Opportunity…

There was a conversation in this space some years back about the bestowing of titles that imply experience to those fresh out of school; an inflation that has historically been seen as diminishing of the title, itself (“Creative Director,” “Producer”…), misleading the person holding the premature title and undermining efficiency and quality.

Well…that’s not gonna change. These “darn millennials” are going to come out of school thinking they are ready for anything. In reality, this is not a problem; rather, it is a portentous opportunity…for all of us.

The opportunity, then, for the remaining grey-haired heads, our peers and colleagues in these industries is to embrace these folkx*, their aspirations and ambitions, and support them in becoming who and what they see in themselves.

Rowers Rowing Boat

Collaborative Leadership & The Apple Store

Rather than confront them for who they may not yet be, embrace them for what they are about to become.

During the Crash of 2009+, I was most fortunate to find myself immersed in 20-somethings at Apple SoHo** at a golden time for that company and the perfect time for me. Where I first walked-in to this sea of edgy youth thinking I’d never fit; I learned in short order that this was just the opportunity for me to completely recalibrate my own collaborative style – something of which I’d been proud and something I learned could be vastly revivified in that maelstrom of tech and humanity.

No one knows everything on the floor at Apple; but together, we knew it all. The context is one of ad hoc dynamic collaboration. Everyone is resource to each other, respect is paramount and the fundamental skill – the basis of success in that place- is Listening: to one another, to the customer.

(Listening. we may have spoken of this quality, before…)

We each had our own ways of addressing a given problem; yet, with successive interactions I would offer that each of our approaches evolved just a tad, time after time, as we collaborated with other Specialists or Geniuses on a given problem at hand.

We learned all the time; about the technology and about one another. The level of respect afforded every, single team member was radically empowering: we each knew something the person next to us did not, and we each could learn something from that same person.

There was an inherent, healthy curiosity, an inquisitiveness among the team. “Who ARE you…?”

Leadership / Mentorship

Those who feel fully Heard are far more likely to Listen and Learn. Listening first, hearing one out, offers the listener the opportunity to see through new lenses and gives the other a sense of validation and trust. Defenses evaporate and true collaboration is more likely to ensue. When people don’t feel pressured to Prove, they improve.

And this, I believe, is our key to success from here on out. We must embrace these folkx for who they are and bring them along through collaboration as we address challenges together that will make them the leaders of the future…and ensure the best future for our industries.

If we Listen…really hear who these folkx are as we bring them onboard, we can create an almost immediate symbiosis. For having been fully heard engenders confidence, self-respect and respect for Leadership. Taking the time, up front, will pay off in massive dividends, creativity and loyalty…teamwork.

When I add new people to a team, my process is:

  • lay out the responsibilities of the job and get agreement
  • agree on schedule, milestones, deadlines
  • share my own methodology and how I would do it, then say
  • “you don’t need to do this ‘my’ way; I’m just showing you what I know works. If you have another way or idea, do that…just be sure to keep your eye on the ball and let me know if things seem to be going awry. Don’t hide errors or mistakes. Your way is fine; as long as it’s successful…”
  • more often than not, some effective hybrid evolves that we both embrace
  • then, if s/he comes to me with a problem, my first question is “what do you think we should do?” And chances are that I’ll suggest we try that; this person is closer to the problem – and solution – than I am.

Y’just gotta have their backs.

Thus empowered, these folkx grow fast…and may be more likely to realize their aspirations without the years of apprenticeship heretofore seen as necessary.


Learning Leadership – Listening & Respect: Respectful Listening

As Leaders, we must be willing to learn. The world is moving fast; and these folkx (loving this word!) think very differently than do we. While the physics of a given problem may remain pretty much the same, solutions can evolve from new perspectives, experiences, points of view, technological familiarity…

Our “tried and tested” are not the only options. All are models from past experience that have worked well; though not the be-all or end-all. Everyone can evolve; even we old guard…and this exercise in Listening creates trusted bonds as all parties discover one another.

Being in positions of “power,” it behooves us to take the first step.

Before we reveal or share what they don’t know; we must learn and acknowledge what they do know.

Some of our most progressive companies have recognized and embrace this philosophy and methodology; some have not quite, yet. It’s the ego-free way of the future.

Beware; it is ever so subtly easy for the Visionary to become a Dinosaur virtually overnight. Stay current, be open, be welcoming, share.


Remember “Don’t trust anyone over 30”?

Well, then. We must authentically, genuinely share and show that we can be trusted and that we trust. I’m telling you, it’s freakin’ exciting, surfing the surge of evolution with teams of disparate ages and open minds.


* (ht: to Clara Rice of Jack Rouse Associates for introducing me to this new, pangendered word.)

** (Shout out to Durk Snowden; an amazing, brilliant, powerful and supportive man and our kickass Flagship Store Manager at Apple SoHo.

IMHO : Creating Compelling Experience” is still a free download from the Apple bookstore and iTunes. Can you believe it? STILL Free. Read it. ]

Letter to a Friend on World AIDS Day…

wad-banner…written after the National AIDS Memorial Quilt display on the Washington Mall in the fall of 1996…

Dear Craig;

It was so great to see you.  Life is moving too fast for us to let it take several more years before we do it, again. 

I was far too cryptic in telling you of my Washington experience.  I know you wanted to hear more.  Perhaps, had we another dinner the next night, I would have slowed-down enough to truly articulate my experience.  So, here, I give you more . . .

It was one of those days that distinguish Autumn from Fall . . .  In the morning, it was cold enough for sweaters and overcoats.  The sky was the clearest of blues without a cloud or any haze; crystal clear with the white granite and marble architectural outlines of Federal Buildings and monuments  — and the Brick of the Smithsonian — providing it’s frame. 

It was crisp and cold, and the wind was so gentle that it just breathed on one’s cheek, a caress of a loved spirit. . .

When we arrived at The Mall at 8:00am, the volunteers had just begun to gather in preparation for the 9:00 Opening Ceremony.  Small groups of the white-clad army dotted the latticework of walkways that stretched from the edge of the capitol grounds to the Washington Monument.  Everyone’s breath came out in streams of steam as they nursed cups of coffee and donuts (donated for the entire three days by Dunkin’ Donuts) and spoke in tones of hushed conviviality.  Old friends welcoming old friends, hundreds of these people had volunteered at each of the Washington and other regional displays over the 12-year history of the quilt.  Serving in this capacity is an honor.

From the Easternmost end of the display, one could look toward the Washington monument and see the 12′ wide pathways that criss-crossed the mall from end-to-end, creating 24′ x 48′ rectangles that rose — in-line, three-across — from there to the spire of the monument at the other end.  Inside each of these rectangles were placed two bundles — the two 24′ x 24′ sections of the Quilt that were to be opened and displayed there within the hour.

It was serene and peaceful, and full of a calm anticipation.

By 9:00am, the perimeter of the display was 2-3 people deep with spectators.  Some of these people had come to see the ceremony for the first time, some to see the Quilt for the first time; most of us were there awaiting the opportunity to visit loved ones’ panels.  At about 9:05, the loudspeakers began to voice the litany of names of people on the quilt, and the teams of volunteers moved quietly, soberly onto the field and began to open the fabric.

There must have been two-hundred of these teams; one for each row of rectangles.  While one team would be opening the first square on the North Side of the display, the team for the next row would be in position on the South side.  It takes a full minute to open each square — first, it is unfolded like a lotus, then the team of eight lifts the fabric high into the air so the breeze can catch it as they rotate 1/4 turn to the right and set the monument down into it’s position.  Then the team moves to the next position across the field as the alternating team replicates the rite.

All the while, all one hears is the litany of names in the morning sunshine.

It takes forever, and it takes twelve minutes to open The Quilt.  In that brief eternity, poignant memories flow through the mind, one after the other, of lovers, friends, famous people you never knew, people you’ve read about, people who are in danger of losing the battle even now. . .

Then, it’s open.  Where, moments before, there was a predominance of green throughout this mile of mall, it is now a million colors and textures.  Flannel, satin, silk, plastic, leather, curtains, bed sheets . . . shiny, dull, warm, cool; every color and texture imaginable spreads out across the ground and welcomes the eyes and feet of the guest.

The litany is interrupted for the words, “The Quilt is now open.”  Then, the names resume.

The crowd that had encircled the display moves silently onto the pathways, and in no time it is truly a sea of humanity.  Thousands of people walking silently, reading panel after panel.  Tears — some silent, some not — begin to fall and will continue.  People stop and stare, some kneel beside the panel of a loved one or someone unknown, compelled by the story on the panel to stop and absorb it.  Some remove their shoes and walk onto the quilt, feeling the fabric, feeling the love of the one who is represented there.

Some of the panels have photographs, some entire albums (Terry’s has a stack of pictures in a plastic case), some have favorite pairs of pants sewn-in, dresses, shoes, teddy bears, favorite shirts, sea shells, hats, icons of lives that some will never forget.

This scenario continues all day long, from 9:00am until 6:00pm.  People silently wandering, politely passing one another, holding one another with love and support.  Strangers will stop and comfort others who are suddenly overcome by the experience.  This is unlike anything else you will ever experience.  This brings the human toll of what is happening into starkest relief.


At noon, on schedule, I was at the stage-side tent below the Capitol to prepare for my reading of names.  As I signed-in, I was handed my sheet of names; 36 of them, representing a specific 24’x24′ display piece.  As it happened, all of mine were first-names only.  (Tragic evidence of the all-too-pervasive stigma and phobia associated with this pandemic and it’s victims. . .)  I was seated on the rear of the stage, in a row of six or eight folding chairs, next to those who would read before me. 

As each reader left the podium, we would each move one seat to the left — toward center stage.  Some people went alone, some went with their friends or lovers or husbands or wives; their names being announced as they walked toward the microphone.  When it was my turn to read, I stepped to the podium and began. . .

“Don R. . . . Tom . . . Sarah . . . Tim. . . .Steve . . . . Gene D. . . . .Javier . ..  David. . . . . Alex . . .. Dominic . . . ” and, in my head, I wondered how old these people were, who they left behind, what had they left unfinished . . . .?  As I read each name, I paused ever so briefly and looked at the Quilt and the sun shining on it and the faces of those standing before the stage who were listening.  They were listening to me, and to the lives of the people I was sharing.

As I reached the end of my proscribed list, I added (as many, indeed most, do by tradition) a few close to me who had died since the last Washington Display.  “Mark Bloomfield . . . ” I repeated the name of one of the funniest men I’ve known, who moved to San Francisco at about the same time I did and with whom I created some of my most idiotic memories; “John Witherow . .. .” one of the most handsome men to ever have walked this planet — with a laugh and a smile that could charm the hardest of hearts and a lack of guile matched only by the most innocent; “Tim Okey . . . ” truly one of the hardest party-ers I’ve ever had the privilege of witnessing, who could drink and drug ’til dawn, then successfully run one of the US’s largest swimming and athletic wear  manufacturer’s Sales Departments; and, finally, “my lover, Terry McCormick, who died on this day, six years ago. . . ” a man who loved me with absolutely no conditions, who saw in me everything he wanted in another, and whom I continue to miss — profoundly and in the deepest core of my being.

I left the stage, tears in my eyes as they are now . . . down five steps to the arms of a volunteer.  Two or three deep sobs into the shoulder of this anonymous soldier, a deep breath and across the tent into the sunshine . . . .

I miss him, so much.  I miss them all. ..