The role of transformational leadership in design

As my team has been focusing on elevating each team member


Justin Jolley

3 years ago | 13 min read

As my team has been focusing on elevating each team member, we’ve started looking at what makes a good manager and how we can train them.

My hope is to share with you some of my experience of things that I’ve found that worked well for me. We’ll cover a diverse set of topics from time management, career planning and 1:1’s, to evaluating your team, leadership and strategy in future articles.

One of the most transformational things for me to learn as a manager has been learning about transformational leadership. Coming up through the ranks as a designer and moving to senior designer, the focus was all on how to get better at everything I did — how to hone my craft and improve each interaction.

I learned that extending that took me to a transactional management style where I was focused on how many stories I could finish, how many designs I could complete, or how many interviews I could conduct.

If I were to take a transactional approach, then I would just try to teach everything I did to our team and have them implement everything just as I did. The problem is this only scales so far. If you try to keep that tight a rein on everything, it’s an exhausting and limiting process.

This is an ongoing process as my natural instinct is to jump in and manage the process. I love to organize and execute on projects as an IC but as a manager I have to try to step back and think of the big picture. It’s difficult because when you’re executing on a project you can see the changes in real-time, but with managing others you don’t have direct control and it’s a long-game, hands-off approach that’s going to work better.

It also changes from the focus on the projects to the people. Transformational leaders are generally energetic, enthusiastic, and passionate. I stumbled upon an article by VeryWellMind, an online resource that focuses on mental heath and finding balance that focuses on the benefits of Transformational Leadership. “

Not only are these leaders concerned and involved in the process; they are also focused on helping every member of the group succeed as well.”

This also brings up another skill needed for this type of management, instead of orchestrating each movement it becomes more of a democratic style of leadership. I found that for me this can feel like you’re losing some control, but you end up with greater creativity as you partner with people in their growth and exploration of a project.


Before we jump into this learning, I want to make it clear that what I’m trying to do is equip you with the tools that are commonly found amongst good leaders and managers.

This isn’t a checklist that as soon as you complete it, poof, you are now a certified manager. Sure, there are management courses, degrees and certifications you can take to help prepare you, but you really won’t become a manager until you are one and struggle through your own path to become a manager.

Transformational Leadership is very applicable to UX and UX Management. The field is rife with various methodologies, processes and tools. What passes for UX practice in one company or even one department of a company can be vastly different from another.

Because of this, it’s important to decide on and train on your process, document it and train on it; then allow each member to practice it as it begins to make sense to them.

As a manager, you can’t participate in every empathy mapping, stakeholder or customer interview, design exploration or interaction with every team unless you have a very small organization. Then even if you could it’s probably not a good idea to involve yourself at that level.

I’ve worked for various companies from the only UX person to a member of a global organization with studios around the world. If you are going to scale your practice and organization, you have to learn to lead from a transformational level in your UX rather than a transactional.

What is Transformational Leadership

Transformational leadership, according to the Business Dictionary, is “a theory of leadership where a leader works with teams to identify needed change, creating a vision to guide the change through inspiration, and executing the change in tandem with committed members of a group”.

The best way I can explain it is moving from a process where you detail out each step of how to accomplish a task to where you teach people correct principle, help them know your intent/vision and then allow them to find their way through it. You can coach but not micro-manage. You provide direction but don’t supply all the answers.

Think of leaders or managers you’ve had in the past who have inspired you or sparked an interest where you dive into a topic with all you have and possibly spend much more time on it that if someone instructed you in every action. That is transformational leadership.

They inspire, not insist; they encourage, not provide the exact path; they give commanders intent, instead of providing all the answers. It’s really allowing people to surprise you and come up with solutions that are beyond what you thought of and hoped for.

A number of years ago I saw a video that I loved right away and have referred to over the years. It was about what people needed to be engaged in a job. The top three answers were autonomy, mastery and purpose. Transformational leadership gives people autonomy over their specific jobs and allows for much more free exploration of their role and day-to-day actions.

Transformational leaders generally function under four distinct behaviors, also known as the four I’s. These behaviors are inspirational motivation, idealized influence, intellectual stimulation, individualized consideration. Let’s take a deeper look at each one:

Components of Transformational Leadership

Idealized Influence (II) — the leader serves as an ideal role model for followers; the leader “walks the talk,” and is admired for this. A transformational leader embodies the qualities that he/she wants in his/her team. In this case, the followers see the leader as a model to emulate. For the followers, it is easy to believe and trust in a transformational leader.

Google co-founder Sergey Brin. Source: Emaze

For someone to hold you in esteem enough to allow you to manage them, you need to be someone they can look up to. Many times this is through them being able to do the things they talk about. I’ve had leaders who were unable to perform the technical things that were a part of the daily job and their credibility was never sufficiently built to allow for respect to develop.

To manage or lead you have to be able to show that you have the knowledge and ability to model whatever you’re trying to teach.

Google co-founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin were these type of leaders. While Google seems to have struggle as of late, their early years were marked by examples of how they wanted to change the world for the good and empower people rather than just make money.

Inspirational Motivation (IM) — Transformational leaders have the ability to inspire and motivate followers through having a vision and presenting that vision.

Combined, these first two I’s are what constitute the transformational leader’s charisma. A transformational leader manages to inspire the followers easily with clarity. The transformational leader convinces the followers with simple and easy-to-understand words, as well as with their own image.

Simon Sinek Source: Wikipedia

Think back to a coach, teacher or some other kind of leader who inspired you and was able to encourage and invite you to do things rather than force and use a carrot or stick? If so, then you’ve met someone who used aspects of Inspirational Motivation.

One of Simon’s quotes that I love is, “be the leader you wish you had”. This is something that I try to remember when I have a bad day or struggle with leadership that I’ve had.

In the UX field this could be a string of people from Jakob Nielsen to Jared Spool, Jeff Gothelf to Steve Krugg and Simon Sinek to Brene Brown and many others.

This can even be someone you work with. I have a great counterpart who leaders our user research where we worked together on a process for testing the effectiveness of an experience or feature redesign. We were working well together and found ourselves waking up each morning, eager to check on the data and chat about it. Is was very motivational and infectious to work this way.

Individualized Consideration (IC) — Transformational leaders demonstrate genuine concern for the needs and feelings of followers and help them self-actualize. This personal attention to each follower assists in developing trust among the organization’s members and their authority figure(s).

Sir Richard Branson Source: Wikipedia

I’ve had a number of leaders and even a few managers that I felt excelled in the Individualized Consideration realm. Many times managers do not bother to be involved or they feign interest to try to build a relationship. However, there are those who truly connect with those they manage.

In order to build the trust needed, someone must be vulnerable enough to ask for help. You have to connect with them in this manner for the trust to exist.

One great example I’ve seen of this is Sir Richard Branson of Virgin companies. He’s a great champion of his people and is noted as saying, “that by taking care of employees at Virgin that everything else will take care of itself.”

At Virgin, a great leader must:

  • Praise employees instead of criticizing them.
  • Genuinely love all people from the cleaning lady to the senior executives.
  • Be a great listener who not only hears the recommendations from employees but acts upon them.

Intellectual Stimulation (IS) — the leader challenges followers to be innovative and creative, they encourage their followers to challenge the status quo. A common misunderstanding is that transformational leaders are “soft,” but the truth is that they constantly challenge followers to higher levels of performance.Elements of Transformational Leadership

📷📷Brene Brown Source: Wikipedia

I can still remember a teacher from the 4th grade that encouraged me to read fantasy books. She inspired something that sparked the fire in me to have a love of reading and writing that’s served me throughout my life.

I can also remember directors that taught me elements of coding that inspired me to learn more about software design patterns. Learning about MVC patterns helped me know how to best work with developers as I would design and implement the HTML and CSS for the front end.

The instances go on and on where I’ve had people that have stimulated me intellectually to learn all that I could about a topic or technology.

Brene Brown is a great example of this right now for me. In her Book Dare to Lead, she has chapter after chapter that has given me insight into my own life and how it affects how I show up as a person and manager.

“Leadership is not about titles or the corner office. It’s about the willingness to step up, put yourself out there, and lean into courage. The world is desperate for braver leaders. It’s time for all of us to step up.” -Brene Brown

How this Plays Out

So how do we learn to become more transformational? Here is a list with some examples of how we can practice being transformational in our organizations and UX departments/teams.

Approach situations with a way in mind to encourage rather than give orders. This is very difficult at times when you may receive a mandate from three levels above you and you don’t really have a choice with how or when something gets done. This is something that is a challenge, but am learning how to do better.

  • Focus on what intrinsically motivates people and focus on developing them individually
  • Highlighting priorities that are important to the company, you and the customer
  • Promoting co-creation and cooperation with feature teams
  • Using insights and persuasive story telling based on data

Most companies have a corporate standard or philosophy they try to live by. We can make sure as leaders we help facilitate these as well as others like inclusive design or avoiding dark practices that can adversely affect those who use experiences we design.

  • Raise awareness of moral and ethical standards
  • Help develop moral maturity in others
  • Creating an ethical climate (share values, high ethical standards)
  • Encouraging team members to look beyond their self-interests to the needs of others and groups
  • Appeal to the ideals of followers
  • Being authentic, consistent in their practice of UX

As a manager it’s easy to have one process and try to follow that for each person, but that rarely works. Many times you need to adjust your approach to match the needs as well as the emotional and mental levels of those you lead. The more times you can find to provide choice based on their needs and interests the better off you’ll be.

I have a great friend who always said his father’s parenting style was to find out what his children wanted and then order them to do it. This might seem like the opposite of freedom, but then both win, right?

  • Providing individual coaching and mentoring for team members
  • Allowing freedom of choice for team members

According to Harvard Business Review, “Companies that claim to be ‘transforming’ seem to be everywhere. But when you look more deeply into whether those organizations are truly redefining what they are and what they do, stories of successful change efforts are exceptionally rare.

Becoming transformational as an organization is more difficult than doing it as an individual as we’ve seen by many of the leading companies. They did find a number of characteristics of leaders within these organizations that helped them achieve greater earnings and success.

These characteristics include:

  • They don’t have insider knowledge of how things have always been to serve as a crutch. Instead they find new ways to be successful.
  • They don’t go down just one path, they try to change the core of the business while growing new areas.
  • They use culture changes going on in the org to enact their changes, trying to take more risks and exploring opportunities.
  • They create powerful narratives around future changes and effectively communicate them to the company.
  • They create a road map to help people understand how the organization will get there.

Put it Into Practice

Let’s put what we’ve learned into practice. Here are a few scenarios. Think how you would respond to each of these in a transactional manner and then in a transformational manner.

Scenario: Jim, a member of your team is having a difficult time following the process to check-in some work that he’s working on. How do you handle this situation?

Do you take him to task about following the process or do you show him the reasoning behind why it’s important to check-in work and let him come to the realization of the effects it has if he doesn’t follow the process?

Scenario: Candice, a member of your team has a conflict with whether to skip a review of her work in order to meet a deadline or make sure the experience that is delivered provides value to the customer and definition of done. How would you coach her?

In your 1:1 with Candice do you bring up the fact that she hasn’t done a review in front of the team or do you show the team something you’ve been working on and model how to get a review of your work?

Scenario: Steven, a member of your team is struggling with working remotely and finding a good work/life balance. How would you manage this interaction?

Do you try to understand his needs and then come up with a solution and to help him or do we ask him to communicate what he needs and what his solution would be given all the needs of the company, his teams as well as his needs.

Scenario: John, a member of your team is looking at a process that you’ve always used on your team, but he thinks it could be done better. How would you interact with him?

Do we simply take everything a team member submits or complains about or do we help them understand all the issues and then see what solution they can come up with that takes into account everyone’s needs?


I’ve been to trainings and conferences where they provide a task to do after the training to put into action what you’ve learned. Let’s try that now. In the next few days or weeks pick a few of these transformational activities to try with your team(s).

  • Communicate expectations to your team
  • Invest in your relationship with a team member
  • Lead on a project by example
  • Make others on your team feel safe to speak up, create the space for it
  • Be a patient and purposeful teacher on a topic
  • Challenge someone on your team to think differently on a new topic
  • Provide continuous but not over-bearing feedback to a team member
  • Show how you are accountable to others within your organization
  • Measure and reward team members performance
  • Connect each member of your team with a project that challenges them
  • Ask questions and seek the counsel from members of your team
  • Exude a positive attitude and energy to the groups you interact with
  • Make decisions and explain them to those they affect
  • Provide opportunities for team members to figure things out

Originally published here.


Created by

Justin Jolley







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