Design leadership style is a powerful determinant of a design team’s effectiveness. By understanding and articulating your style, you can be a more intentional and effective leader.
☕ Develop your leadership style
There is an aspect of design leadership that has a large impact on a leader’s effectiveness but is somewhat less talked about. This aspect is one’s philosophy and how it appears, their leadership style.
Leadership style describes if the leader lets the team sweat the details or leads by doing. It affects what behaviors will be rewarded or penalized. It affects if the team focuses on the short-term or long-term. It affects how much the leader sets or facilitates the vision. In short, leadership style will determine how the design team will operate.
Leaders need a lot of skills to be effective, things as communication, UX skills, and strategy, both soft and hard ones. But style is different. It’s more about the personal convictions, the purpose, the motivation, and the values one represents, and how they result in the leader’s approach to doing things and making decisions. There is both an internal and an external conflict that involves style.
The demand and pressure towards design leaders is ever-increasing. Their teams want to grow themselves and their impact and want to create profound, innovative, and beautiful things. The broader business expects them to deliver great experiences and a clear value. These pressures often push leaders into assuming a masked persona, conflicting with their values, making their leadership inauthentic, and heading ultimately to disillusionment and burnout. This is the internal conflict.
Depending on the context, the style does need to change. When times are tough the team might need a sub-optimal design process to get things done quickly, more junior team members might need hand-holding to get through a tricky project, different people will need different coaching, the leader could be super-cautious or daring in certain projects. Some styles are just more successful and effective in certain company cultures. This is the external conflict.
Ideally, there is a clear alignment between the leader’s internal values, the assumed style, and the business context. Since multiple styles might fit the same values, there are multiple paths to choose from that fit certain contexts. Articulating one’s internal values and philosophy helps to establish a toolbox of styles. In some cases, one might even discover they don’t fit into a given context.
A declared style, even if it’s not shared publicly with the team, has an impact. It helps to bring consistency into decisions and priorities, to display the right behaviors at the right time, and to react to situations the right way. It builds the leader’s and the team’s influence.
Even if a leader doesn’t articulate their style, doesn’t have a clear idea about it, and just sort of does things as they feel like it - the style still exists. If things go well, a better articulation won’t be missed. But as soon as things go south, having clarity of one’s philosophy and style helps to steer the team’s boat on the stormy sea.
I find thinking about the leadership style important, as I see huge differences in how effective teams operate, how likely teams can increase their impact, and how happy team members are, all affected by the leader’s approach.
Teams stuck with a leader with a limited style or unsuitable suffer. Teams in growing organizations will especially miss the mark when they should’ve stepped up if they have leaders with a vague or unsuitable style. What got them to this step, won’t get them to the next step.
Design leadership also goes beyond managers, as every designer and researcher is also a leader. As they work in cross-functional teams or with various stakeholders, they need to be able to have their way. Otherwise, they will be just executing. To stand on firm ground with confidence in one’s professionalism and being able to influence decisions, one can draw strength from personal conviction and an articulated philosophy.
Starting with leadership styles is easy. Spend a bit of time to explore what worked in the past. A string of examples from case studies that highlight what worked well. This can be boiled down to a mission statement, a short manifesto, or a set of personal principles. Just putting some words on paper will help better understand the decisions one is making.
Styles will ideally help to determine how you work with your team, and how the design work will incorporate the company’s mission and provide value to the business. Maybe also more importantly, it helps to see how the work is in line with one’s purpose, which is important for a fulfilled and happy life.
🥤 To recap
- Leadership style is a powerful determinant of team effectiveness. It affects how decisions are made, how tasks are prioritized, and how team members are rewarded and penalized.
- Design leadership style faces both internal and external pressure. Internally, they must balance their values and beliefs with the demands of the job. Externally, they must adapt their style to different contexts, such as the needs of the team, the broader business, and the company culture.
- Having a declared leadership style is important for both the leader and the team. It provides consistency, predictability, and a sense of direction. It also helps to build trust and influence.
- Design leadership goes beyond managers. Every designer and researcher is also a leader, and they need to be able to have their way to be effective. Having a clear leadership style can help them to do this.
- Articulating your leadership style is a simple but valuable exercise. It can help you to better understand your values and motivations and to develop a more intentional and effective approach to leadership.
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🍪 Things to snack on
Design leaders might be expected to behave a certain way, but not being true to oneself might hold them back from reaching their full potential. Matthew Godfrey writes about this idea in Design Leadership: On being your genuine self. Finding one’s true self behind the mask of assumed leadership and bringing one’s whole self to work helps in being more authentic, getting more respect, and creating a sense of safety for the team and beyond.
Lara Hogan’s Leadership Style Colors is both a nice introduction to leadership styles and a way of describing it that might be attractive to design leaders - as shifting colors symbolizing different stances. The article also offers a way to choose the right color in different situations and some nice exercises to figure out one’s colors of leadership style. Hogan also has a simple one-pager mad lib to describe one’s leadership style: Management / leadership philosophy worksheet for her book, Resilient Management.
I found Justin Baker’s The 7 Design Leadership Styles — Which one are you? lists a useful baseline overview of some of the styles for designers and their differences. The seven styles mentioned are Affiliative, Autocratic, Democratic, Laissez-Faire, Strategic, Transformational, and Transactional. These styles are probably not something a new leader should follow, but rather archetypes that can be used to figure out and develop the story of one’s leadership style.
I love reading about how other designer leaders present their secret sauce. Brendan McWeeney’s You may not be my leader: my philosophy on design leadership is a particularly interesting example, as it also details the process McWeeney went through to figure out his leadership philosophy, starting from experience and fitting it to an established leadership model.
The personal design leadership style description, my leadership philosophy and approach. by Jerrod Larson focuses on the specifics of design leadership, details how UX fits into the broader business context, and how it applies managing designers and researchers. The article highlights how design leadership and management differ from other disciplines, as there cannot be a generalist design manager, people leading design teams always need to be experts in UX.