Leadership is THE Strategic Issue

October 6, 2008 · by Richard Farson

Most designers don’t think of themselves as having a place in high councils of decision making. But that is where they are needed most. The first step is for designers to begin to imagine themselves as leaders — of design firms, of communities, of cultural organizations, of corporations, and beyond.

Most designers don’t think of themselves as having a place in high councils of decision making. But that is where they are needed most. The first step is for designers to begin to imagine themselves as leaders — of design firms, of communities, of cultural organizations, of corporations, and beyond.

Design is one of the few professions dominated by its clientele. Compared to physicians, attorneys, and academics, designers are inclined to do what they’re told. That posture is so widely accepted among designers that it sometimes seems the only ones who can occasionally insist on having things their way are the superstars of design.

Of course, having one’s way is hardly the ideal manner in which to conduct a professional relationship. Nevertheless, design judgment, even in matters of social responsibility such as health and safety, let alone matters of aesthetics, efficiency, productivity, and visual impact, is often subordinated to the client’s or employer’s wishes.

That is such an old story among designers that perhaps it is small wonder that designers tend not to see themselves as leaders. If they have learned not to expect their professional judgments to sway clients or employers, how can they imagine leading corporations or communities, to say nothing of exercising leadership in the developing global arena? It is simply impossible for most designers to think of themselves as having a place in high councils of decision making.

But that is where designers are most needed — at the top. It is a travesty that the only professionals close to CEOs are lawyers and accountants. Designers have more to offer because increasingly our organizations need to be design-driven, not just market-driven. To truly prosper, global society must have its needs met, not just its wants.

Instead, designers who work in organizations worry about not being appreciated, worry that their work is not understood by top management. As a result, they spend an inordinate amount of time trying to educate the CEO about the benefits of design consciousness, not realizing that every other department is also trying to educate the CEO about the potential contribution it could make because its members feel similarly misunderstood and unappreciated.

The truth is that CEOs don’t understand any of the professions or groups represented in the organization and never will. Because things change so fast, they don’t even understand the departments they came from. They have other concerns. They have to see the big picture. Most of their time is spent on matters having nothing to do with the internal operations of the organizations they head. Instead, they deal with industry-wide issues, government relations, community needs, raising capital, and so on.

The better strategy for designers would be to regard the current effort to educate the CEO about how designers see the world as a lost cause and instead try to educate themselves about how the CEO sees the world. Is it possible for designers to try to gain that top leadership perspective? If and when they do, they can become the indispensable people occupying chairs at the directors table.

Designers, however, are understandably reluctant to leave their drawing boards or computers, preferring hands-on work with their design problems. Leading, making it possible for others to work with those design problems, somehow seems non-creative, not what they were trained to do. Nevertheless, that is the necessary change designers are going to be called upon to make. If design will be the byword of the 21st century, designers will have to take their places as its leaders.

The fact that it is a difficult change to make shouldn’t deter design professionals who have already made many fundamental changes. In recent years, many designers have become cyber designers working in electronic space, metadesigners helping laymen create their own designs, entertainment designers who never expected to be designing experiences rather than things, and so forth. The change to a leadership posture shouldn’t be more difficult.

A coroner I know was once asked, “Whatever made you want to become a coroner?” He thought for a moment and replied, “I don’t know … I guess I just like people.” That remark is amusing because we often hear people justifying their decisions to take a job or enter a profession with those words, and we tend to regard that motivation as rather superficial. It turns out, however, that when it comes to leadership, it isn’t at all superficial. Liking the people one is leading is crucial to success.

Liking people depends not only on the personality and background of the individual but even more on the role relationships one has on the job. Certain professions are engaged in work that risks eroding their respect and liking for people. This may be a work hazard for police, journalists, and lawyers, for example, who often work with people who are misbehaving and deceitful. Other professions — psychologists, for example — tend to create relationships in which their liking and respect for their clients grow.

Where does design stand in this respect? It all depends. When we see people only at their defensive or deceptive worst or when we feel victimized by them, we tend to like them less and less. When designers become lackeys or victims, they will dislike their bosses or victimizers. On the other hand, when they feel they are genuinely helping their clients or employers, they will like them more. We tend to like not the people who do things for us but the ones we do things for. That explains why the best leaders are those who serve the group. Paradoxically, it is more important for leaders to like their people than for their people to like them. Eventually it will be reciprocal.

Many years ago my friend, the late designer George Nelson, told me a story I will never forget. Early in his career, Nelson worked for a time with Frank Lloyd Wright. One day when Nelson and the great prairie architect were taking a walk and talking, Wright was struggling to find a metaphor that would explain the essence of architecture. At one point he stopped and pointed to a flower, saying, “Architecture is like this flower … no, that’s not it.” He then walked a bit farther, turned and said, “George, architecture is like being in love.” After he told me that story, Nelson said, “Dick, I hope it doesn’t take you as long as it took me to figure out what he meant by that.”

Well, I’m afraid it did. But I’m beginning to get the idea. It is a paradox. In order to be a professional, one must be an amateur. The word amateur comes from the Latin amator, meaning to love. Amateur doesn’t mean doing something badly but doing it for the love of it. Of course. Love and passion are the organizing forces in leadership and management, overriding technique or skill, just as they are in almost everything worthwhile doing — romance, parenthood, creativity. Paraphrasing Wright — leadership, then, is like being in love. And paraphrasing Nelson — I hope it will not take you as long to understand that as it took me.

Leadership is like being a good host at a dinner party. Consider what that entails. A good host thoughtfully plans the evening, carefully composes the group, takes pains to create the proper environment, arranges the appropriate seating, sets the agenda for the evening, introduces subject matter for discussion, lubricates difficult situations, soothes relationships, takes responsibility, moves things along, attends to details, keeps controversy at a manageable level, adds humor and optimism, comes early and stays late, brings guests into the conversation who previously may have been marginal, handles one thing after another, shifts attention easily, listens well, doesn’t dominate, is at ease with self and others, and most important, enables the guests to be at their best.

Leadership is not a skill. There are no expert leaders, just as there are no expert friends or husbands or parents. The more important a relationship, the less skill matters. Leadership is a high art. It is too important to be a skill. It needs to be understood and appreciated for its aesthetic qualities, for its gracefulness and beauty, just as we appreciate these qualities in a great athlete quite apart from that athlete’s contribution to the victory. While we can appreciate them in their own right in both sport and leadership, these aesthetic qualities are fundamental to success.

All this must make it seem that becoming a leader is a rather tall order. But there is good news. You already know how. One of the amazing facts about leadership and management is that you can take people right off the production line and make them managers. Without an hour of training they start right in, and the great majority succeed. That’s not because the job is easy. In fact, leadership is the most complex, difficult, responsible job our society offers. It makes brain surgery look easy. The reason that brand new managers can do it is that they already know how.

We all have a mastery of roles that we seldom if ever get a chance to play. That new manager has experienced leadership in so many situations in life that he or she has unconsciously acquired the role and only needed the right situation for the right behavior to be elicited.

Designers have even better preparation than most to assume leadership. They are especially qualified. Designers are already good at seeing things in context, already understand the sweep of history, are already conversant in the arts, sciences and humanities (as are the best leaders), are already good at working in ensembles, are already environmentally aware, are already aware of the limits of technology and its backfiring nature, are already capable of a high level of creative thinking, are already appreciative of the aesthetic dimensions of leadership. The first step, then, is for designers to begin to imagine themselves as leaders — of design firms, of communities, of cultural organizations, of corporations, and beyond.

This century will probably determine the survival of our civilization. We will succeed only if design becomes the organizing discipline of the future, and that will happen only when designers become leaders. The world needs what designers have to offer — not just on the drawing board but on the board of directors.

This article is excerpted from Richard Farson’s newest book, The Power of Design: A Force for Transforming Everything, published by Greenway Communications and the Ösberg Library of Design Management. The chapter from which it was drawn was adapted from an article originally published in Perspective magazine.

Post Comment

Opening a New Office: A Case for Restraint

Sep 18, 2014 · by Riccardo Mascia

Weighing the risks and rewards of expanding into new markets Read full »

Infographic: Hottest Regions for U.S.-Based Multinational Design Firms

Sep 18, 2014 · by DesignIntelligence

The shift in global economic power is driving significant trends in many areas of business and life. Some see cause for concern, but others have found increasing opportunity.Since DesignIntelligence... Read full »

Richard Tomlinson: Career Retrospective

Sep 3, 2014 · by Richard F. Tomlinson II

A partner from SOM shares lessons from a storied and prolific career Read full »

Global Market Share is Expanding for U.S.-Based Firms

Sep 3, 2014 · by James P. Cramer

U.S.-based multinational firms are thriving in a growing global market Read full »

How Firms Succeed 5.0

SCADpad

Topics

DI.net RSS Feeds

DI.net on Twitter

Research Support