Picasso vs. Einstein

In the first week of school during our Professional Leadership Development Programme (PLDP) course, our coach asked us to draw or write something that represented who we were, our strengths and weaknesses. As I viewed my groupmates drawings and the many other classmates that later got circulated in our shared houses or telegram groups, most had a lot more text or series of drawings.

Mine was different.

I drew one of the most famous Mountain views in Colorado, a place I had called home for 2.5 years before Europe, called the Maroon Bells. The scene included a cloud over my head as I climbed up a mountain, yet a hand stretched back at the group behind me, a group made up of different skin tones and genders. Complete with apple trees and pumpkins at the base of the mountain to represent home, the entire drawing was a metaphor for who I was. An adventurous woman who was not always presented with sunshine yet valued giving back to those behind her.

I was pleased with my drawing skills, yet quickly realised the stark difference of my drawing to my classmates. I felt like Picasso versus many Einsteins. My approach to every problem was wildly colourful and I couldn't help but ask myself where did my creativity fit in here at INSEAD? Should it fit here?


1. Embrace it then share it

It was the fourth day of Business Foundations in the Christoph Rubeli amphi filled with 80 classmates sitting two seats apart from each other, masks on and concentrated looks.

The afternoon class was called "Quantitative Methods" and by day four I was already so lost I couldn't even understand what our assigned case was asking us to do.

Yet our professor randomly called on our group to present our analysis to the profit models of the case, stating that every person in the group was required to present. We stood up, and as I walked down the amphitheater steps, with the case physically quivering in my hands, I frantically glanced over it, and whispered to my engineer groupmates, "dibs setting the scene."

I turned around to the class and began to tell the story of some man named Gregory and his dilemma about choosing the pricing of his blue tooth chips for his motorcycle gadget company, literally the only information I knew from rereading the first few sentences of the case.

I did not know these classmates yet, and showing off my theatrical storytelling, and in my mind, blatantly revealing that I was in way over my head already in this MBA programme, was a vulnerable moment.

Yet, I knew I could capture their attentions by demonstrating what I was good at, which was captivating an audience. My performance was met with quite the enthusiasm; a moment that is still talked about today. Owning who I was in that moment sent a signal to my classmates that they could do the same; a signal that we trusted each other to be vulnerable so that we could push ourselves beyond our comfort zone together.

This was the first lesson I learned at INSEAD: embrace what makes you different, then confidently share your talent with others.

I began to see this not only within the amphitheater classroom that first week, but also when I first took a step back to look at my drawing in the PLDP exercise the week later.

2. You are your biggest obstacle

By the time the last period, affectionately known as P5, of INSEAD arrived, the atmosphere shifted from a busy stress to a more relaxed and social climate compared to the first two periods. Even for those of us that were still looking for jobs, we had already survived the worst of COVID-19 and finished most of our required classes, therefore our focus now was in strengthening the bonds with our classmates. Sounds fun right?

Yet P5 was unexpectedly hard. I found myself lying awake at night for hours, typically waiting until the clock stuck 6am and the curfew lifted so I could go for a run to clear my mind.

I had been granted the honour to give the valedictorian speech, had a sister who was about to have a baby, and was about to take my most anticipated class of the year on cross-cultural leadership … why was I lying awake at night? What was wrong?

Myself. It took me until a desperate call with a mentor amid a panicked sixth rewrite of the valedictorian speech to realise that I had built the Great Wall of China in front of myself and my capabilities. I had trapped myself inside a wall of pleasing others and trying to compromise with a speech for everyone in my class, rather than remembering to go back to my first lesson: embracing my authentic self and sharing that. It was in that moment that I took a step back, realising whatever true story that I wanted to tell, would end up being the story my class would want to hear. Second lesson complete.

I sat down, and within 30 minutes the speech poured out of me.

3. Get rid of the cannots

"Poor performance is especially contagious," read the slide in our Conducting Business Across Cultures class one morning. Particularly during times of global pandemics, "contagious" is a powerful world. Yet as I reflected on that slide and the MBA, I realised just how contagious not only performance, but attitude was for others.

This contagious attitude was perfectly exemplified by our favourite professor on the Fontainebleau campus, Enrico Diecidue, for he taught with such energetic sing-song Italian expressions, spit flying all over his mask (which we then realised we were grateful for) from his gusto, that you couldn't help but smile through the entirety of the statistics course.

Who knew we all could like binomial curves so much? Yet Enrico made us fall in love with him and the course through merely his contagious demeanour.

We are all allowed to have bad days, and by all means complain about those days when you have them. But complaining is easy. Complaining is contagious. What is more challenging is to fall on your face (or in my case quite literally from an electric scooter accident), and still pick yourself up with grace and a smile, no matter what it looks like. Doing so is what attracts others, and as the saying goes, a leader is only a leader if she has followers.

Therefore, my last lesson I learnt, and I wanted to give back as a small gift to my class to forever remember, is that the true source of bravery is to bring a "we can" attitude to whatever we do.

By presenting that positive energy, overcoming the biggest obstacle of ourselves, we become a powerful contagion of leaders. After all we went through in the last year, we know we have it in us. And weeks after I dictated the message on a stage to my 363 classmates, we realised that even the saying is contagious; the class that can.

Now let us show others that they can too.

 Picasso + Einstein

Overall, it was a windy journey.

Yet I found that my creativity not only fit in here, it was needed. For without my unique talents in the MBA, perhaps my story would never have been shared. And if my story was never shared, perhaps I would not have been able to turn around on that mountain and grab the hands behind me along for the ride.


Written by Jennifer Lipes

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