How to Lead Like Red Burns
Here are five leadership lessons from the career of the late Red Burns, cofounder and inspirational leader of an eminent New York University master’s program.
By Jack Rosenberger
Often lauded as the “Godmother of Silicon Alley,” Red Burns cofounded and led the Interactive Telecommunications Program (ITP) at New York University, a creative and technology-driven master’s program that has produced more than 3,000 graduates. Many of ITP’s graduates now work at global brands like Apple, Disney, Google and Microsoft, as well as smaller companies and eager startups, where the best of them carry on Burns’ vision of using technology as both a means of creative expression and a way to improve people’s lives. Burns died late last month, at the age of 88, and the resulting obituaries and related articles often recalled her inspirational leadership of ITP, from which I have gleaned a handful of lessons about technology, collaboration, checking the periphery and more.
Technology is a tool. For Burns, what was important about technology was what it could be used for. When the Sony Portapak videocamera, the first portable video camera, was introduced, a Burns-related project involved documenting a broken stop light to force New York City officials to replace it.
As Evan Rudowski, an ITP graduate, wrote in Mashable: “Led by Red and her vision, ITP was filled with people who believed, as I was coming to understand, that technology is merely a vehicle for expression. As amazingly advanced as technology could be, it was pointless without dialogue. Who cares what it does? What are you trying to say? Red and ITP was teaching people not to be technologists—but artists, communicators, participants.”
“To me, the computer is just another tool,” Burns said in an interview. “It’s like a pen. You have to have a pen, and to know penmanship, but neither will write a book for you.”
Value collaboration, not competition. Burns emphasized collaboration over competition, and one of ITP’s hallmarks is its collaborative atmosphere. “Competition is not valued here,” Burns told The New York Times in 2007. “Competitive people have energy, they’re interesting and so forth. But they’re so focused on the competition they fail to see what they’re doing. They just want ‘better, bigger, stronger, longer,’ and they miss the periphery. And that is where you find things you don’t even know are there.”
“People here aren’t trying to beat each other at something, or win something,” Burns said in a 2008 interview. “When you walk around and feel the energy, it’s extraordinary.”
Diversity is vital to innovation. Burns believed that collaboration and diversity were the two forces that fostered innovation at ITP, according to a New York Times profile, and Burns and her ITP colleagues deliberately created a diverse program, both in terms of students and faculty. Half of ITP’s students are female, which is unusual for a technical program, and many students are from foreign countries. As for the faculty, Burns hired a large number of adjunct faculty, which enabled ITP to provide a wide variety of courses (140 at present), quickly adapt to new developments in technology, and explore different areas of study, much of which would be difficult to accomplish with a faculty of full-time specialists.
Technology constantly changes. Burns recognized that technology is always changing, so she emphasized different ways of approaching and thinking about technology, as opposed to having students master specific technical skills. “We’re training people who have to learn to navigate in a world of change. If there’s anything constant, it’s change,” Burns said in a 1994 interview. “People come here for one purpose—to understand the possibilities of this new form [of technology]. These technologies are going to change all the time. They’re really going to have to understand the fundamental nature of the technologies and the possibilities. And we look for ways for the technology to be applied in very human ways.”