Here's my designers-as-leaders quandary in two simple parts:

  1.   More than ever we need designers running things.
  2.   Iconic designers tend to be terrible at running things.

You see my dilemma. And I point it out with all the love and respect for designers, since I am one myself. The good news is great designers can become great leaders, far easier than your typical CEO can become a great designer.

So let's break down the need for creative types in the c-suite, and how they can improve their leadership game.

Whether it's re-imagining a food system for sustainability, expanding education, or making safe, comfortable housing available to everyone, these problems require a non-linear, creative--out-of-the-box and out-of-your-mind--approach.

That's what designers do, at least the great ones, people I learned from like David Kelley the founder, and Tim Brown the CEO, of IDEO.

1. Zig like a designer while others zag

Design is all about original thinking and creativity applied to an iterative problem-solving process. The output is a product or business that is maniacally focused on not just the very best design, but people. The person who is going to pick up that piece of hardware, or engage with that service every day and make it part of his/her life.

Obviously, Apple is the ultimate example, but think about the Nest experience, Airbnb, Method, and I'd throw Plum Organics in there as well. We redesigned baby food for kids and parents.

The point is, all of these started from a blank sheet and with a designer's reflexive disregard for what came before. We need much more of that. We need creative people to build the things and the companies that will lift us out of some of the holes we as a society have dug for ourselves.

2. Be a (benevolent) design dictator

Which gets us to the other part of my quandary, what makes great designers great-- that creative vision and maniacal focus--can also make them horrible leaders. We've all heard and read about design dictators like Steve Jobs. They drive incredible, world-changing results, but the wake they leave behind tends to drown a lot of people in the process.

But can you get the best possible design without being a tyrant?

Can you be a benevolent dictator?

The short answer is "yes." You can bring other people along on the journey. I am not suggesting giving up the reins of creativity with some design-by-committee approach. That is a path to bad ideas and incoherent execution.

But having a clear, concise design vision doesn't have to lead to tyranny, and the way to pull that off lies beneath every designer's nose.

3. Leading with empathy is the key

Every good designer taps into a deep understanding of the needs, wants and desires of the people they are serving through their design. At IDEO we called it Human Centered Design.  

Picture a favorite object or app, it's exists to be of service to the people that use it. That is the same notion that designers need to embrace when they are running things--great leadership is a service model.  You are working in service of your team to drive great results, as opposed to your team being in service to you. To tap into what your team truly needs, wants, and desires from you as a leader empathy is the key.

4. Keep the vision lose the ego

You can still have a strong vision for design and for your company and your brand (and you must), but when you marry that with the idea of servant leadership everything happens.

It becomes a pursuit not just of design perfection, but also of organizational perfection. What does the workspace look and feel like? What about the clothes your employees wear, and the food they eat? As a leader you are not just setting the design direction for products and services, but for the employees and the company.

Your vision becomes something that is owned by many. Ultimately that is what leads to perfection, more than any solitary design genius could.

Published on: Jul 18, 2016
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