Facets of design leadership

What does it mean to be a design leader? Countless discussions, essays, blog posts and pithy tweets abound covering this question in numerous ways. But as you prepare your portfolio, pitch yourself to potential clients, and present yourself to a future employer, you need to ponder quite deeply about how you yourself approach leadership.

Every designer is a leader in some way…even when starting out — you are role modeling behaviors, demonstrating best practices, and signifying the value of design for stakeholders to appraise and absorb into their thinking. That leadership sensibility — even at the nascent stages of one’s career — expresses itself as words, actions, and of course the “artifacts” or deliverables you provide. Even subconsciously you are framing yourself as a leader — or perhaps undercutting yourself. 

There is a mindset or attitude that you bring to a design situation, personified in your behaviors. There is an approach you demonstrate in how you tackle a problem, or pursue an opportunity, or address someone’s criticism.

There is also the matter of how you interact with peers, highly senior leaders, junior level staff, or the greater community of professionals outside your immediate work context. How do you represent yourself to them?

Most importantly, how do you represent your self to yourself :-) Despite (or maybe because of) ever-changing layers of expectations, pressures, or masks of portrayal, it’s hard to get a sense of who are you to you at your core. Whoa. This is deep stuff! But leadership is more than putting on a mask or mantle that you take off after 8 hours. There’s a base of authenticity of course, with mindful pragmatism to balance all together, too. And it all carries through cognitively, emotionally, physically in the course of our daily lives, even subliminally. 

I have found there are multiple facets to being a design leader, which evolve over time in terms of priority or prominence or context. For me, there are 4 specific facets that I embody:

Evangelist: Being a constant champion of design as a power, a value, a virtue to others, towards fostering greater understanding and depth of appreciation of design’s benefits, in our work and our lives.

Catalyst: Serving as a provocative instigator of radical & creative notions that accelerate a team’s momentum towards something innovative yet valuable, breaking away from legacy modes. Speed, intensity, focus, with an eager, experimental mindset. Yup, the proverbial “bias to action”!

Advisor: Offering informed counsel based upon my years of experience in the field, having worked in a wide range of companies, various organizational models, with diverse design methods and such. 

Ambassador: Being regarded as a resourceful representative to the broader design community, while bringing value back to my clients and employers. Enabling that two-way dialogue of sharing and symbolizing, as well.

These four naturally build on and amplify each other, propelling a virtuous cycle of optimism and striving…and are all grounded upon a specific value or virtue, at least for me —  “teaching” or “sharing knowledge & passion”, expressed as those facets in various ways, providing value through impact, influence, and inspiration. Leading by example is also very much a big part of this.

What facets shape you as a leader? Think of the moments where you exude confidence or aim to build trust & respect, or reduce complexity & ambiguity while building rapport with the team. When are those moments you feel satisfied and accomplished, or at least hopeful and inspired? Chances are those are the signals that suggest the kind of leader you are and the facets that reflect & shape your design leadership potential, with an outlook for others to strive, as well.

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