Leadership through Design
How to use your innate abilities as a Designer to be an amazing leader.
The best designers are highly empathetic, have deep emotional intelligence, are expert communicators, and have a significant influence on people around them. These are all qualities needed for effective leadership. Unfortunately, many great designers will never realize their full potential because they think they don’t have what it takes.
As designers, we often struggle with imposter syndrome and are frequently thought of as people who simply “make things pretty.” But, what most people don’t know is that designers are, in fact, continuously conditioned to become amazing leaders.
Become an expert
As the saying goes, knowledge is power, and the more information you have, the better positioned you are in your company. Whether you are a new hire or have been working at the same company for many years, take the time you need to become an expert.
As designers, we are the voice and the advocate of the customer. We need to know everything about them — their goals, their jobs to be done, their life, and their struggles.
But, what is less often talked about is that we must also be the experts of the company we work for. What industry are we in? What does the market landscape look like? How are we different from our competitors and how is our positioning unique? Where are we headed and what is the vision we are working towards? The answers to all these questions should and will inform our design decisions.
Learn as much as possible so that you are seen as a knowledgeable resource that other people can rely on.
“The key to successful leadership today is influence, not authority.” — Kenneth Blanchard
To be the problem solver you set out to be, you must first build trust with your team. As a designer, you are a guide who leads people into the unknown.
That requires crazy amounts of trust and confidence from many different groups of people. Your stakeholders need you to understand their business goals, your customers need you to understand their frustrations and needs, and your developers need you to understand their limitations.
Building trust with anyone starts by being reliable. Do your best to be on time to your meetings and deliver work on time. Show your colleagues and your team that you have their back when they need a hand with a project. When you’re in a meeting that is taking a turn for the worse, take the fall.
Never throw your team under the bus. As a leader, you are responsible for your team’s work. Being able to take the blame for a mistake will not only gain you the trust of your team, but will also gain you the respect of your colleagues.
“It is better to lead from behind and to put others in front, especially when you celebrate victory when nice things occur. You take the front line when there is danger. Then people will appreciate your leadership.” — Nelson Mandela
You’ve learned a lot on your journey, which is why you are the lead of your team. It’s likely that you have accumulated a wealth of information and knowledge over time; after all you did put in all that effort to become an expert ;)
Let your team shine with projects that best suit their skills, but when a designer makes a proposal that you know is not the right one, start by asking questions.
Never assume you know everything because each perspective is unique. In design, one could even argue that there are no right or wrong answers, just subjective opinions and hypotheses.
Let your team explore ideas and solutions on their terms. Your questions will only help guide them, while giving them the freedom to experience and learn on their own — arguably the most satisfying part of work.
“Never tell people how to do things. Tell them what to do and they will surprise you with their ingenuity.”— General George Patton
Give the benefit of the doubt
I often have to remind myself of this one, but it’s an important one. It’s easy to jump to conclusions and get frustrated. As designers, we naturally have very high standards for quality and attention to detail. When something falls short of our expectations, it’s natural to feel disappointed.
Especially now, during these trying times, we need to cut our team and our colleagues some slack. When working remotely, it’s hard to observe people’s emotions. We can hide our feelings during 1–2 hours of online meetings much easier than when we spend the whole day at the office, surrounded by people.
The truth is that we don’t know what’s really going on with our colleagues, their families, and their friends. There is usually a good reason why something was late or forgotten about and at the end of the day, work is work. What matters most is trying to be there for people during difficult times as a friend, support, mentor, listener — whatever that person needs at that time.
“To command is to serve, nothing more and nothing less.” — Andre Malraux
The world could certainly use more empathetic design leaders, so wherever you are in your career, I hope you have been able to take some inspiration from these quotes and know that you have it in you to overcome imposter syndrome and become an amazing leader.