A Designers Guide to Design Leadership
Arushi Sethi /
There’s a gamut of design job titles out there with infinite variations in responsibilities and job functions. It is critical to unpack its big picture core differences, keeping the pedestals of job designations aside.
Design leadership is a concept complementary to design management. Within organizations, design managers often have a role in design leadership, and design leaders often have a role in design management. However, the two terms are not interchangeable; they are interdependent. Fundamentally, design management is in charge of carrying out strategies that are defined by design leadership.
Let’s unpack the differences using the design leadership radar:
By categorising leadership activities into three degrees of zoom, the leadership radar adds another lens to examine leadership through within each of these domains.
- Design managers – Micro – focusing on direct details and concrete, tangible, individual elements
- Design leaders – Meso – focused on leadership acts at a group level with a medium-level focal length
- Thought leaders – Macro – abstract ideas, systems and the environment in which the leader operates in, examining large-scale patterns.
The following are 4 key design leader personas I would like to touch upon. You can use these personas as a baseline to understand and develop your own design leadership philosophy.
1. The Commander: demands compliance, obedience, and following the rules.
The “Commander” practices a transactional leadership style, commonly called autocratic leadership, & provides explicit instructions and close supervision to their teams. Unlike other leadership styles, it is strict and demands results. A commander generally has a significant amount of authority and works closely with their designers. These leadership strategies are often used by organizations with extensive safety regulations, such as financial institutions, hospitals, and manufacturing companies.
How does the “Commander” operate in a design process?
Instead of soliciting feedback from their team, the commander engages in top-down communication, basing judgments on information gleaned from the execution of the design process itself. Through the many stages of the design process, leaders who employ this strategy often lay out explicit guidelines with a clear grasp of the implications of successful performance and behaviours that need to be improved.
A ” Commander” sets explicit incentives and consequences to encourage teammates to achieve or surpass these objectives. They reward designers openly and transparently when they achieve their objectives & provide direct and often public feedback when experiences they create are not delivering the expected value to the business. The “Commander” tends to passively intervene when objectives are not being met or when there is a clear risk to the trajectory and only actively manages to define objectives in the beginning of a design process.
The core ideology of a Commander:
- Focuses on empowering mid-level, managerial leaders
- Promotes design process adherence and rule compliance through incentives and punishments
- Maintains the status Quo and promotes standardization of design output
What do the Commanders trade-off?
- They say “NO” often: to have the mental and physical bandwidth necessary for the team to flourish, as a commander, you must learn to say “no” to the majority of ideas and possibilities. Due of this, the team and the leader may grow apart, making it difficult for the team to communicate with the leader during the design process.
- Trading obedience for acceptance: Fellow designers listen and follow the instructions, but they don’t necessarily buy in and this impacts the commitment a team holds towards solving a problem.
- Limiting creative licence: A commander limits creative license by constraining designers to meet specific, pre-defined goals. The commander sometimes manifests as a series of rigid systems and processes. This leadership style can be challenging when… environments require a lot of innovation, collaboration, and independent thinking.
When is the Commander most effective?
The commander works well in situations where it’s important to make judgments quickly and make few mistakes. This leadership style is typically used in crises and outperforms all others since it performs best under pressure.
“People think focus means saying yes to the thing you’ve got to focus on. But that’s not what it means at all. It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are. You have to pick carefully. I’m actually as proud of the things we haven’t done as the things I have done. Innovation is saying no to 1,000 things.” – Steve Jobs, Apple
2. The Ingenious Monk: builds agreement through participation and magnetism.
Leadership designed around consensus usually seeks to keep the peace within the organization by acting as mediators and peacekeepers. A monk uses a mix of democratic and charismatic leadership to motivate others by combining charm, interpersonal connections, and persuasiveness to influence fellow designers. To do this, they tap into their team members’ emotions, building trust, passion, and purpose beyond themselves.
How does the Ingenious Monk operate in a design process?
To ensure designers are affirmed and satisfied, the ingenious monk attempts to understand their perspectives and needs while balancing the tight rope of client deliverables and stakeholder buy ins. The monks are effective in work environments where… the team is experienced, knowledgeable, and able to contribute productively to conversations. Without favouritism, monks make themselves available for discussion or assistance and empower each individual on the design board to collectively contribute to the team’s success.
The core ideology of the Monks:
- They Influence the design team and stakeholders through the power of their personality.
- They motivate the design team’s long-term behaviour change by transmitting their energy and compassion.
- Monks evoke strong and passionate emotions within the design team to contribute to the problem they are solving.
It’s not all rainbows and butterflies, though…
What do the Monks trade-off?
- Tact vs avoidance: In the long run, it becomes more difficult to maintain unity in the team when leaders avoid conflicts that they believe will be too difficult to handle for the team. This can lead to underlying problems. Keeping designers at peace is more about giving them the answers they want – but not necessarily need. Directional errors, judgment errors, and outcomes are caused by this avoidance.
- Designing in consensus is often a slippery slope: In the absence of consensus, the monks have difficulty making decisions. It may then be difficult for people to trust them, especially in tough times. The common goal of achieving consensus to keep the ball rolling may influence team members to ignore substandard ideas and attitudes, and a lack of corrective action may threaten the organization’s well-being in which the design team operates.
When is the Ingenious Monk most effective?
When a design teams face a crisis or are struggling to move forward, the monk’s ability to connect with people is especially valuable. In times of uncertainty and existential threat it is crucial for the monk to be aware of the emotions and needs of the people they are leading in order to employ this style of leadership. Because of their emphasis on relationships and contagious zeal, monks often have an impact during times of distress.
3. The Dynamo: recognizes team members’ strengths, weaknesses and motivations to help each individual improve their game.
The Dynamos, like a coach, are essential to the growth of the squad. They make an effort to be a good leader by considering the individual goals, desires, and motivations of each design team member in order to bring out the best in them. dynamos cultivate lean & close-knit teams that collaborate closely to achieve their objectives by placing an emphasis on individuals and fostering strong mentor-mentee connections. The dynamos place a lot of emphasis on giving team members chances to take on issues and develop their own ways of working to tackle problems head on.
The core ideology of the Dynamo:
- Promotes disciplined free thinking teams & is helpful for design teams where inexperienced managers are onboarded or promoted
- The dynamo’s objective is to assemble a group that works incredibly well together and relies on one another’s strengths to get things done
- Cultivate a growth mindset for designers realise their full potential, and produce the best results possible in any circumstance & master the unknown.
What do the Dynamos trade-off?
- Intense labour for time crunches: Dynamos may experience time management issues due to their significant emphasis on interpersonal relationships, which makes it challenging to provide each designer with the support they require.
- Work culture team clashes: some businesses continue to operate primarily under top-down systems, despite reports that indicate that personal leadership styles like that of the dynamo are the growing need of the hour to set up high output cross functional teams. This can make it challenging for the coach to be a coach!
- Situational adaptability: Dynamos must adjust to each player’s needs when coaching designers on the team. Creating a bespoke experience with individual objectives and goals for each team member can be very difficult in addition to taking a lot of time. To lead the designers could turn out to be more cumbersome than the design process itself.
When is the Dynamo most effective?
To lead is to continuously learn: being a dynamo is a highly effective way for leaders to raise their level of self-awareness. When leaders recognise their own performance blind spots & break old habits, they enhance team dynamics and spot opportunities for growth. The dynamo gives lower-level employees the opportunity to use the power they will need to use intelligently in their future positions as a leader.
4. The Virtuoso: Let’s wing it together!
A leader with exceptional talent, the virtuoso places complete trust and reliance in the creative team to provide the finest customer experiences and results.
They just offer assistance and input when requested; otherwise, the team can function entirely independently. Designers are encouraged to develop their own working styles. Each teammate is given complete creative freedom by the virtuoso to investigate anything. gives team members complete control over their own design process, schedule, objectives, and priorities.
The core ideology of the Virtuoso:
- Design team members who are trusted feel confident in their work and want to stick around in an environment that makes them feel relaxed and relied on.
- They empower & creates leaders of tomorrow.
- They Interfere in the design process only when it’s absolutely necessary to tackle risks.
What do the virtuosos trade-off?
- Accountability passing – Because they claim to have misunderstood the objective and the request/ delegated task, members of the design team occasionally attempt to shift responsibility back onto the manager or other leaders. Accountability is particularly challenging for teams and groups to accept since it is highly personal and individualised.
- Freeway vs Ignorance – Virtuoso leaders may come across as disinterested, which can be terrible on the team’s morale. When leaders aren’t actively participating in a project or a design process, it might annoy junior designers as they want to feel that their labour is acknowledged and appreciated.
When is the Virtuoso most effective?
The virtuoso functions best in highly effective design teams where senior designers can direct and enhance their own end-to-end design processes while guiding junior designs onboard. This style of leadership works best in design teams that work with clients that have higher UX maturity within their organizations. Leading like a virtuoso leads to a more relaxed workplace culture. Designers don’t feel micromanaged or like a manager is always watching them. By doing so, they may unwind, enjoy their work, and communicate effectively with their peers.
Having stated these core personas, its essential to note that your personal leadership style will combine two or more of these personas together — and as a leader you will also evolve over time and with experiences. To get the best performance out of your design team, develop your own special strategy that is relevant to your people and their growth.
“The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality. The last is to say thank you. In between, the leader is a servant.” – Max de Pree