My Personal Philosophy on Design Leadership
A leader is someone who drives all forms of value innovation by thinking strategically about organizational, societal, and user needs to set a direction that others are motivated to follow. Great leaders need to have a vision and inspire others to act on that shared vision. They should be passionate about their craft and create new forms of value while being empathic relationship builders who lead alongside others.
To reach this definition and construct my own Personal Philosophy of Leadership (PPL), I started with an introspective, experience-based view of leadership and mapped that to what my impressions of leadership have been throughout different periods in my life. I then took those signals and contrasted them with findings from other formalized approaches, models, and theories. Through this process, I have developed my own philosophy that has helped guide me along my leadership journey.
I began this project by taking an experience-based view that documented how my impressions of leadership evolved throughout my life. This analysis helped me visualize how particular values, assumptions, and behaviors have been conceptually present throughout while others have only recently surfaced. My early experiences of leadership came from interactions with my parents that were reinforced throughout my lifetime by coaches, teachers, friends, coworkers, and thought leaders within the design and tech industries.
From a young age, the values of creativity and wisdom stood out to me in regards to values that I found necessary in leaders. I was encouraged by my family, teachers, and coaches to do my best whether it be in arts, academics, or athletics. Throughout adolescence, I witnessed collaboration and creativity within my family as my father went out on his own to start his own business. My parents led the rebranding effort, but they included the entire family. They brought the family along asking for our opinions on the visual direction and allowed us to do some explorations as well. My father had a strong drive to succeed, which was contagious, but he was always charitable and held caring for others in high regard. He was and still is to this day passionate about giving back and being hands-on with the less fortunate in the community. His actions taught me that you could lead with a strong point of view, but empathy was an equally important value.
As a young adult, the leaders I gravitated towards were my creative writing, photography, and psychology teachers. I respected these people for their wisdom, how they embraced the creative process as something that was collaborative, and how they always provided a safe space for critique. As I began my design career, I was fortunate to encounter many generous mentors whose leadership and advice has stuck with me to this day. They were masters of their craft in their own right and created an environment for me to grow and expand beyond the realm of my skills at the time. These design leaders gave me the tools to be a more confident designer, unafraid to explore things beyond my immediate mastery.
Creativity has been a constant value throughout my life and one that I admire in the leaders who have influenced me. The values of empathy and having a collaborative mindset are core values for me. Wisdom, intelligence, and having a vision are also factors that attracted me to the leaders I encountered throughout my life. My experience with these values and behaviors have become a part of who I am as a design leader today.
Creativity, empathy, and wisdom are three core values to my PPL. As a design leader, these values have been critical to possess at every stage in my career. Creativity helps guide a leader in defining a value innovation that could challenge the status quo and inspire others to work alongside them. A leader must also appreciate and practice empathy in everything they do. A strong empathic leader helps build a culture that fosters creativity. Leaders also need to be wise and masters of their craft. Wisdom here applies to both the emotional and technical sides of intelligence. Having the subject matter expertise gives the leader the confidence they need to lead and in turn, gives their team the confidence to follow them. Having emotional intelligence can guide their own ethical and moral decision-making processes as well.
Leaders must have a strong vision that resonates with their teams and moves them to action. They must be great storytellers who communicate through compelling narratives in ways that rally the troops. My philosophy believes that leadership is not unique to only certain individuals. Tim Brown, IDEO CEO said, “Leadership is a craft. If you practice it enough, you can master it.” This statement aligns with my philosophy in that leaders are not always born, but can emerge into assigned leadership roles through practice and hard work. Through training and by being self-aware of our strengths and weaknesses, we can learn what to leverage to become great leaders.
Leaders are confident, self-assured masters of their craft who create more leaders through coaching and encouragement. Effective leaders build up and create the next generation of leaders. They inspire and empower others so that they can grow into their full potential.
Great leaders need to lead with a strong point of view that encourages their team to join in their strategic vision. While having a strong point of view, that leader should be capable of holding on to that point of view loosely. A leader should be open-minded in a way that empowers their team to discover the right questions to ask themselves. Albert Einstein once said, “If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on the solution, I would spend the first 55 minutes determining the proper question to ask, for once I know the proper question, I could solve the problem in less than five minutes.”
Strong leaders need to create rituals that foster creativity. The rituals and environment they create should provide inspiration, be a safe space, and be agile enough to address challenges as they arise. My philosophy requires that leaders lead alongside their team and provide guidance, they do not force their will. It is about getting “on eye level” with their team and empowering them to succeed in ways that are intrinsically rewarding as they execute on adaptive value innovations for the business and themselves.
I pressure tested my experienced-based view against the models presented in Northouse’s book Leadership: Theory and Practice (7th ed.). I rated each model on a scale of 1-10 (1 being low influence, 10 being strong influence) and found that my philosophy most aligns with the Transformational Leadership style, closely followed by the Authentic Leadership model, Leadership Ethics, and the Psychodynamic Approach.
Transformational Leadership sees leaders as those who change and transform people. (Northouse, p. 161) He states, “It is concerned with emotions, values, ethics, standards, and long-term goals. It includes assessing followers’ motives, satisfying their needs, and treating them as full human beings.” Leaders from this point of view also have an idealized influence, or charisma, and create a sense of purpose that helps build high performing teams. These statements align with the foundation of my philosophy.
The concept of Individualized Consideration (Northouse, p. 169) is at its core a form of empowering people. In this realm, leaders are mentors that help the team reach their full potential. I firmly believe that if you build people up, they will accomplish more. I have seen first hand how empowerment and tending to the needs of a team not only results in high performance but increased job satisfaction. It’s a pay it forward model that benefits both the leader and the follower. In my experience, this approach not only enriches the team but the leader as well. That connection and reciprocation help an organization execute on adaptive changes and value innovations. Ayse Birsel illustrates a great example of this, “When we allow those at the lowest rung of the career ladder to take on the superhero role, and step back ourselves to learn from them, the best ideas can rise to the top.”
This model also touches on the behavior of leading alongside, a pattern that emerged first in my experience-based view assessment. When you lead alongside your team, you are motivating and coaching them to find creative solutions on their own that contribute to the value innovations set before them. It’s leading with an inspired and shared vision while still enabling your team to act and take ownership.
The Kouzes and Posner's model within Transformational Leadership (Northouse, p.175) emphasizes that leadership is accessible to all. It is not exclusive to individuals with specific traits. They agree with Tim Brown that with practice, one can develop mastery in leadership.
Transformational Leadership further fits with my philosophy around the concept of intrinsic motivation. Northouse explains there is an “emphasis on intrinsic motivation and follower development, which fits the needs of today’s work groups, who want to be inspired and empowered to succeed…” (Northouse, p. 161). I have seen this in action throughout my career for those employees looking to grow and take ownership of their work. I have witnessed a direct correlation between levels of empowerment as it relates to team engagement. As I practice leading alongside my team and fostering their growth as a coach and mentor, I have seen them respond by producing fantastic work.
Finally, I favor this approach because of the ethical and moral qualifications. To be unethical or immoral automatically disqualifies people from being a leader. Those who use power to manipulate and coerce eliminate themselves from the leadership club.
A strategic, evolving design leader
Through this introspective analysis of leadership, I found that creativity, empathy, and wisdom are core values to my philosophy. Transformational leadership is the style that most aligns with these values, assumptions, and behaviors that I’ve maintained throughout my life. Empowering people, leading alongside, and being an ethical person all align with this philosophy as well.
Defining my personal philosophy of leadership has been an exhaustive yet inspirational journey. This process has highlighted not only things that are important to me today but it has also identified how those values and beliefs were formed. In turn, my philosophy is organic and genuine to who I am versus simply aligning with an academic methodology that might not authentically match. This guiding philosophy is my true north for design leadership. It plays to my strengths, is something that will grow with me over time, and will serve as inspiration as I continue to evolve as a leader in my career.
Northouse, P.G. (2016). Leadership: Theory and Practice (7th ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.
Bradberry, T. (2009). Emotional Intelligence 2.0. San Diego, CA. TalentSmart.
IDEO U: Leading for Creativity Course (I highly recommend this course!)