What does leadership mean to you? Is there a type of leader that you aspire to be? Is there a type you would not want to work for?
To answer these questions I decided to 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 impressions and contrasted them with findings from other formalized approaches, models, and theories. Through this process, I have developed my own philosophy that has helped me articulate who I am and who I aspire to be as a design leader.
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.
How did I get here?
I began this journey 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. 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 empathy and creativity within my family as my father went out on his own to start his own business. My parents led the branding 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.
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 exploration and critique.
Through this analysis, I discovered that creativity is a value that I admire in the leaders who have influenced me. Empathy and wisdom are also factors that stood out throughout my life. Those values along with collaboration and drive encompass my philosophy of leadership and have shaped who I am as a design leader today.
Creativity, empathy, wisdom, collaboration, and drive are core values to my PPL. As a designer and design leader, these values have been critical at every stage of my career. Creativity and drive help guide a leader in defining a value innovation that challenges the status quo and inspires others to work alongside them. Practicing empathy helps build a collaborative culture that fosters creativity. Leaders also need to possess wisdom and be masters of their craft. Wisdom 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. But, 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.”
“My philosophy requires that leaders lead alongside their team and provide guidance, they do not force their will.”
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.
The Pressure Test
I pressure tested my experienced-based view against the models presented in Northouse’s book Leadership: Theory and Practice (7th ed.). I rated the influence of each model on a scale of 1–10 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 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.”
“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.”
Within Transformational Leadership is the concept of Individualized Consideration which at its core is 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. 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.
“To be unethical or immoral automatically disqualifies people from being a leader.”
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 (or president) club.
A strategic, evolving design leader
Through this introspective analysis of leadership, I found that creativity, empathy, wisdom, collaboration, and drive 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 behaving ethically all align with this model as well.
Defining my personal philosophy of leadership has been an 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 authentic to who I am. This guiding philosophy is my true north for design leadership. It plays to my strengths, will grow with me over time, and will inspire me as I continue to evolve as a leader.
Leadership: Theory and Practice (7th ed.) Northouse, P.G. (2016). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications
IDEO U: Leading for Creativity Course — https://www.ideou.com/blogs/inspiration/tagged/leading-for-creativity
Becoming a Design Leader — https://www.designbetter.co/design-leadership-handbook/becoming-a-design-leader
Emotional Intelligence 2.0 Bradberry, T. (2009). San Diego, CA. TalentSmart
How to Lead When You’re Not in Charge — https://hbr.org/2013/05/how-to-lead-when-youre-not-in
Clifton StrengthsFinder Themes — http://www.gallup.com/poll/166991/clifton-strengthsfinder-theme-descriptions-pdf.aspx
DiSC Assessment Management Profile — https://discprofile.com/what-is-disc/overview/
To Come Up with a Good Idea, Start by Imagining the Worst Idea Possible — https://hbr.org/2017/08/to-come-up-with-a-good-idea-start-by-imagining-the-worst-idea-possible
Why the U.S. Government Is Embracing Behavioral Science — https://hbr.org/2015/09/why-the-u-s-government-is-embracing-behavioral-science
How to use behavioral economics to become a better leader https://www.bizjournals.com/bizjournals/how-to/growth-strategies/2014/10/use-behavioral-economics-to-become-a-better-leader.html