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Berlin Brief

5 Questions With Christer Windelov-Lidzelius

June 25, 2015

Christer has been the CEO and Principal of KaosPilot, the groundbreaking Danish education organization, since 2006. The school describes itself as a ‘hybrid business and design school, a multi-sided education in leadership and entrepreneurship.’ Its goals include training students by fostering personal development, collaboration and creative leadership. KaosPilot’s ‘teaching programmes are not designed simply to shape students to fit the future, but to help them create it.’

KaosPilot was acknowledged as one of the best design schools in the world by Businessweek in 2007, and in 2011 Fast Company named it one of the ten best schools for the fast evolving start-up economy. Today, the school attracts entrepreneurial minds from all over the world.

1. When did this project KaosPilot start for you?

I enrolled as a student in 1995. It has been a long journey since then. I had a very good time at school, and I after I finished I was immediately invited to assess other people’s work as an external censor. I did that for many years, which was a nice way to stay in contact with the school and see what all the new generations of KaosPilots were up to. I never assumed that I would come back full time, though. (laughs)

2. From the beginning, the school stood out with their teaching philosophy. What is your core belief when it comes to education and personal development? What is teaching about for you?

Our fundamental understanding of how we teach people is to help them to teach themselves. There are certain things you can teach, but only so much. What we do essentially is to curate the learning journey for each person individually. The belief is that our students are already creative. They bring their talents and their ideas with them. Besides, we strongly believe that the people who come to our school are self-motivated and self-driven, and that they need to be that, in order to pursue their goals and their values.

In order to be a successful and productive KaosPilot student, you have to be your own teacher. Our students who enroll at this program are not empty vessels in which we pour certain things and thoughts in their heads. The glass is not even half-empty. It’s always filled. The glass is always filled and in that regard our job is to convert what that filling is into something they would like to be.

3. You’ve been an entrepreneur yourself, prior to your current position. If you look back, what has been the toughest challenge for you so far?

There are certain similarities between those two – being an entrepreneur and running a school – certain challenges that I’ve experienced in both positions. But there are some fundamental differences. When you start as an entrepreneur you are more than anything responsible for yourself and rely on yourself only. You have the idea, everything runs more or less the way you desire or you have the ability to adapt to move things forward, especially in the beginning. When you take over something that has a history, that has a tradition, there is that need to stay true to some of that original source that brought it to what it is today and where I’ve enrolled. You want to continue to grow, yes, but still there is actually something, some practical things you need to take into consideration.

Structures are changeable in theory, but with culture it is different. When you are hired as a manager, the assumption is that you know more or that you can do something better than someone else. That is the whole assumption of choosing anyone for a job. But then, how do you actually know what to change when you enter into a new job? All these structures were built for a reason. And it is very easy to go in and to take the big machine gun and get rid of some of the structures. But very often the need doesn’t disappear. These structures were built for a reason, in most cases. And that need it was built for will still be there.

Which also leads to the other aspect, when you are hired to do a job your responsibility stretches far beyond yourself. Obviously, if you are an entrepreneur and you employ 50 people then you have responsibility for these jobs as well. But at the beginning at least, you don’t start with the same intensity of responsibilities. In the beginning, you are more or less responsible for yourself. If you take something over, you immediately step into other people’s lives. And that is something to be very careful about.

4. On the KaosPilot website it says, “Fuck business without culture” – what does this quote mean to you?

Well, actually it is a quote from a student many years ago. We had a lecture about the paradox between business and culture. The quote comes from the idea that business shouldn’t be there just for itself, that we are in and aim for something more. It is about the larger part of society and community. For me, what the quote stands for and what I’ve experienced, is that it is like a bell that rings in a way. It captures the imagination of a lot of people when they see it. Besides, the bigger agenda behind it is the businesses that we build and the wants that we are fostering as a school should never lose the perspective of what type of value creation do they actually do. To what extent do they contribute to the well-being and the growth of our society.

We want to value and assess our work with more than one perspective. And that is very much the cultural side or aspect that the quote refers to. For us, entrepreneurship and innovation is a great way to achieve some sort of positive social impact –and we should aim for it.

5. You’ve once said, “the most important thing in leadership is not to ask yourself how do you lead and affect others but how do you lead yourself”. What would be your personal answer?

To me, in a world, where there are so many choices to be made every day in any given situation, this what we call “leading by example” becomes extraordinarily important. If we look at our complex societies and working environments today, it’s not so much about certain knowledge or tools – though you need some of them to start with.

Most people that you work with, they are smart and well educated people. And by far most people know what is right and what is wrong, what is good and what is bad. It is very seldom that you need to have a fundamental conversation around certain aspects. Most people are better than you to do their own job. So it is very little that you can offer in terms of technical support. So what you try to do more is to be this mirror and a reflection point as well as channeling point in terms of the purpose of the organization. As such, the consequence of this is that as a leader you and your authenticity are on the line in a very different way. Being a leader comprises more than certain techniques, tools or knowledge.

The personality of a leader has a lot to say. Your attitude and mindset towards yourself and your challenges, your team and your organization become far more important than a given type of knowledge because very often you can obtain this during the job.

There are basically two ways. One way is that you can tell everyone, and two you can try to be it. And although the latter is far more difficult, I tend to think that it is more valuable.