These notes formed the basis for a chapter on leadership styles from my previous book, Design Leadership: How Top Design Leaders Build and Grow Successful Organizations published by O’Reilly Books in January 2016.
Making mistakes seems to be the cornerstone of my leadership style. Barely does a day go by when I’m wondering whether I could have handled a situation better. Having written two books on leadership, I know I’m not alone. Running a company or leading a team is fraught with difficulties and failures. The question remains; are there some styles of leadership that just work better than others? The interviews for the Design Leadership book aimed to identify styles of leadership that produced more positive results than negative outcomes.
Leadership Lives in Failure
“From a leadership perspective, I look at most of what I do is failure.” Says Bryan Zmijewski of Zurb, “I’m constantly failing. I like to use Babe Ruth as an example. Babe Ruth was an exceptional baseball player. He hit tons of home runs, but he also struck out as much as he hit home runs. Somehow he had a batting average of 300, which means to be one of the best baseball players in the world hitting, he was missing most of the time.”
It might feel counterintuitive to consider failure as a leadership style, but Zmijewski does just that. By opening himself up to the growth mindset and embracing moments of failure as learning opportunities he’s putting himself ahead of the game. “I think from a leadership perspective, we have these expectations that you’re supposed to get right answers all the time, and that leadership has the right answers, when really we’re trying to guide people through the result, whether it’s good or bad. To get to the next place, what I am doing on a daily basis, is making adjustments and corrections based on the feedback and incorporating back into our work and seeing where we can go with it. It literally is everything we do.”
Releasing the desire to be right all the time seems to be something that many of our leaders struggle with. It’s not the desire to be right but the fear that they might be wrong that drives this feeling. “I started the company really young.” Says Peter Kang of Barrel in New York, “I was 23, my partner was 21 so we didn’t know better about a lot of things. In terms of working with each other working and with our first employees. We were scared. That’s the best way to put it because we operated a lot from a place of fear.”
“Micro-management is exhausting.”
Acknowledging that fear was getting in the way was the beginning of personal growth for Kang. Pretending to have all the answers was putting Kang and his partner into situations where they felt they needed to always be managing every detail of the business. This micro-management is exhausting. Once they realized this wasn’t working and they accepted that they had to get familiar with failure, Kang and his partner got to a place of understanding. “In the beginning we were thinking that we’re paying these people to do work for us and we weren’t even sure we could trust that they’re doing it. It’s an awful mentality. Over the years you understand that the best work comes when people feel like they have the room to grow and when they’re given the support and there’s an environment where they’re not being micromanaged.”
Kang goes on to describe how his leadership style has evolved since those early days, “There’s no longer looking over their shoulders now because we trust that they’re going to do their best work. Understanding that took a long time. Once I got comfortable with the idea that things can happen even when I’m nowhere near because I know that I helped to create that environment.” This idea of creating a safe place for others to be be their best creative selves is not unique to Kang and his company Barrel. Dozens of successful design firms see this as their primary goal and align their leadership styles to encourage and reinforce that ethos. This frees the design leader of the need to control every aspect of the design organization. Instead they create a trusting environment so their team can get on with what they are good at and leaders like Kang can focus on more strategic issues. “That feels like a great personal achievement. For so long I always thought I had to have a hand in it or I had to be the controlling factor.”
“I think I learned it from my grandfather.” Remembers Matt Bertulli, CEO of Demac Media in Toronto, ON, about how he learned to lead without feeling like he needed to know everything. “Our family had a large home decor design business in northern Ontario and I grew up in that business. We didn’t have babysitters or daycare or any of that stuff. I basically grew up in the backroom of that office. I got to see my grandfather, my grandmother, my parents and my brothers all working for the family business. We all grew up in a very social environment. With customers coming in all the time and going up to strangers’ homes.” No stranger to the failures that challenge all businesses, Bertulli, whose business is into its sixth year still wonders how his grandparents and parents pulled it off successfully. “I say to my mom all the time ‘I don’t know how you did this.’”
“You’re never going to know what the hell you’re doing.”
Being in a growth mindset means you make peace with the fact you’ll make mistakes and that’s okay. “My grandmother still just shrugs it off. She’s like ‘You’re never going to know what the hell you’re doing.’” These off-the-cuff gems are more important than we might think. Believing that there is some magical way to avoid failure sets leaders up for heartbreak. Having a healthy mindset for growth means embracing failures and seeing the challenges as part of the path to something better. “I guess leadership for me is a funny word.” Adds Bertulli, “I think of it just in terms of daily actions. While others might think you’re the leader by a certain title or responsibility. But there’s not much difference.”
The learning mindset was common in the leaders we interviewed. 75% of the design leaders claimed that they are flexible and growth minded. A further 25% described themselves as super adaptable or chameleons. It is possible that the nature of our investigation also attracted those leaders that were most open to growing and learning. If that was the case, it was fortunate that there are so many lifelong learners but possibly less fortunate to have a perspective on what static mindset leaders do in the face of failure. In my view, leaders that don’t react well to failure are probably not very good leaders. In the healthy mind the flip side of failure is learning so it’s not surprising to find great design leaders become mentors or role models to others. Not surprising is to find that growth minded leaders also like to teach. Almost all the design leaders we interviewed write frequently, speak at conferences and mentor other designers.
“My style is kind of a teacher style.” Says Dave Gray of XPLANE. “I’m a pretty hands off teacher. I like to create structures within in which people can learn and figure things out.” This point is extremely useful. It’s hard for design leaders to be present at every point of failure and provide insightful teaching when it happens. A significantly more effective approach is to craft an environment that supports learning when the teacher can’t be around. Doing this involves several strategies but almost always incorporates the lead-by-example method. “My strength as a leader is to inspire and encourage people. I try to set an example in the work that I do that makes people look at me and say ‘yeah, I want to be like that. I want to do that kind of stuff. I want to be that kind of person’. So I’m not only teaching, I’m also doing.” I’m a big fan of this approach. As a leader it’s often difficult to not jump in to solve every problem that arises. Thinking of yourself as a teacher gives you permission to teach and then step back. Let failure happen from time to time to let the student grasp the lesson.
“My strength as a leader is to inspire and encourage people. So I’m not only teaching, I’m also doing.”
Being a practical example also has it’s challenges. Always doing and never delegating undermines any opportunity for the team to learn from their own experiences and can feel a little like mistrust. “I try not to meddle in other people’s work.” Says Gray, “Because I tend to be more critical, I try to compensate for that. I’m very critical of my own work. I’m kind of a perfectionist, so when I’m looking at other people’s work, I try to mitigate that. I don’t mitigate it by not talking about the things that I have criticisms about, usually. But I mitigate them by also saying all the things that I like, which is easy to forget. I don’t usually tell those things to myself.”
Failure is your friend but that doesn’t give leaders the right to only focus on negatives. Finding a balance in all things is the lesson here. Design requires critique but it doesn’t have to all be negative. Seek the positive and reinforce the positive lessons, not just in the failures.
Enjoy what you’ve read? Good, because there’s another entire book full of this stuff. I’ve been working with two masters of product Martin Eriksson and Nate Walkingshaw on writing a book that all product professionals can benefit from. Partly out of curiosity and on the back of our own experience, we’ve interviewed almost one hundred product leaders. Their insights and experiences will open up the conversation and take the lid off the mystery of great product leadership.