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Fall 2022

DSI Designer in Residence: Karen Proctor, “Improv Lab”

In the Spring 2022, we spoke with Karen Proctor about her residency. Karen’s vision is informed by practices used in applied improvisation, which integrates imagination, emotion, and physical embodiment to support various dimensions of self-efficacy. She also hopes to incorporate findings from her residency into her Leadership course at DSI,  guiding “social design leaders to have stronger internal belief that they can be successful when engaging in the most demanding kinds of leadership processes.” 

“I dream of a world of infinitive and valuable variety … in thought and dream, fantasy and imagination; in gift, aptitude, and genius—all possible manner of difference, topped with freedom of soul to do and be, and freedom of thought to give to a world and build into it, all wealth of inborn individuality.”
W.E.B. DuBois, 1947

Can you talk a bit about your professional experience? How did you get to where you are?

Since 1986, I have garnered experience and expertise in the related “fields” of public affairs, corporate social responsibility, government affairs, and social design. I have worked in and with different industries and sectors⎯radio, cable television, professional sports, publishing, higher education, philanthropy, state and federal government—and collaborated with practitioners across sectors on issues ranging from education reform to health equity. For the past ten years I have led Harbour Workshop, a social innovation firm, helping clients achieve what they envision for their work and the better future for the communities they work in and with. I have helped leaders who have been stuck in their own status quo situations move forward and discover new approaches for addressing complex social challenges. Core theories have guided the work—social change leadership, adaptive leadership, team leadership, transformational leadership, and authentic leadership among others. I teach the leadership course for MFA social design candidates at the School of Visual Arts because my professional (and just basic life) experience has taught me that leadership development is an under appreciated but critical lever for advancing any kind of social good.

What do you have planned for your residency with students?

In his book Introduction to Leadership: Concepts and Practices, Peter Northouse writes that, “[a]n effective leader creates compelling visions that guide people’s behavior. In the context of leadership, a vision is a mental model of an ideal future state. It offers a picture of what could be.”[1] Northouse continues, “a leader is able to visualize positive outcomes in the future and communicate these to others. Ideally, the leader and the members of a group or an organization share the vision.”[2]

Researchers have identified five main characteristics of visionary leadership: “a picture, a change, values, a map, and a challenge (Nanus, 1992; Zaccaro & Banks, 2001).”[3] The picture is an image or description of a better future.[4] The better future requires some type of change, a change in values, systems, structures, alternative ways of thinking and doing.[5] To move toward the better future, people have to know where they are going; a map is required to provide direction and benchmarks toward the vision.[6] Direction and benchmarks are in the form of new goals, approaches, and principles for moving forward.[7] The challenge has to do with the compelling reasons that motivate people to surpass the status quo and press beyond self-interest, holding concern for the interest and wellbeing of others.[8]

Finally, the leadership process necessitates that leaders can adequately communicate the future state and then facilitate implementation.[9] This is easier to do when the vision does not require too much of a diversion from the current state, harder when the shift demands collaboration and/or complex, culture, systems or values change.[10]

What happens when “what could be” or the “ideal future state” is difficult to imagine or requires significant values and culture shifts? What if nothing like the vision has ever been fulfilled—or seen before in society—limiting the capacity to form mental models based on what is previously known, or possibilities; hindering the ability to articulate what “better” actually means? What if those engaged in social change efforts are so indoctrinated by status quo systems, structures, and cultural norms that only imagining incremental change is possible, when there is desire for more transformational shifts.

As I continue to work with others to develop a range of leadership capacities for social change, I want to have a deeper understanding of how employing creative methodologies and practices can help leaders work more effectively on complex social issues. I want to explore how creative modalities such as creative writing and improvisation, which integrate imagination and emotion, can support various dimensions of visioning—which is critical for leading change—and prepare leaders for the more arduous aspects of leading implementation.

During my residency I will engage in desk research, leader interviews, and experimental workshops in collaboration with DSI students and stakeholders to investigate current approaches and perhaps discover novel ones. I intend to incorporate my findings into my DSI course content, as well as into my professional social impact practice. I also plan to host at least two public talks, one during Spring 2022 semester and one during the following Fall 2022 term, to share insights learned.

What do you hope to personally get out of being the Designer in Residence?

My desire is simply to learn and to apply the learning toward improving my leading and teaching practices. I am excited about delving into—what for me is—the unknown about the role of creativity and effective leadership and discovering new insights, ideas, and possibilities.

What would you say is your personal approach to design thinking in your daily life?

I prefer to answer this question focused on my personal approach for leading in my daily life. Leading is a daily practice that starts with leading myself according to my core values and the pursuits that I believe are aligned to my life’s purpose. I call my approach to leading and working with others navigation, the challenge is coming to a shared understanding of what the destination is, and working collaboratively to chart the path successfully toward it.

Any projects coming up you are particularly excited for?

I hold excitement for all of my work.

[1]Northouse, Peter G.. Introduction to Leadership (p. 161). SAGE Publications. Kindle Edition. [2] Ibid
[3] Northouse, Peter G.. Introduction to Leadership (p. 162). SAGE Publications. Kindle Edition. [4] Ibid
[5] Northouse, Peter G.. Introduction to Leadership (p. 163). SAGE Publications. Kindle Edition. [6] Ibid [7] Ibid [8] Ibid
[9] Northouse, Peter G.. Introduction to Leadership (p. 167). SAGE Publications. Kindle Edition. [10] Ibid

Connect with Karen Proctor

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