Exceptional Leadership by Design: How Design in Great Organizations Produces Great Leadership

Cover of Exceptional Leadership by Design: How Design in Great Organizations Produces Great Leadership


Table of contents

(15 chapters)

Concept of Design

Traditional paradigms of leadership have celebrated decisive top-down control and analytical decision making. But times are changing. The world is becoming more connected, complex, fluid, and interdependent.

Leading people in this age requires empathy, collaboration, curiosity, and creativity. It’s more about designing elegant solutions than mandating feasible ones. It’s more about becoming optimistic beacons of change than authoritative custodians of the status quo. The leaders of tomorrow are not commanders, they are innovators; and in that, they have a natural ally in designers – the poster children of innovation.

This chapter focuses on how leadership can leverage tools and frameworks usually associated with design to innovate, solve complex problems, motivate teams, inspire people, and nurture the next generation of leaders. It discusses design methodologies – user-focused design, lean, design thinking – as potential approaches to optimizing organizational leadership. We elaborate these ideas through real-world examples.

The chapter also offers actionable tips and techniques that designers use to respond empathetically and elegantly to complex human needs, which are rooted deeply in behaviors and attitudes, governed by complex interactions, and therefore, hard to grapple through a purely analytical approach.

It debunks the myth that leaders need to be creative similar to designers to apply Design Thinking. Applying design approaches and practices to organizational leadership is not just about its leaders becoming more creative. It is definitely not about the person at the top coming up with the grand answer. It is a collaborative effort that brings people from all levels together in pursuit of a common goal.

For several decades, leaders have recognized that the ethos and language of our social, business, and governance structures have become barren, too small, and insufficient for the many challenges and opportunities facing contemporary leaders and the myriad contexts in which they serve. “Designing Leadership Like Jazz” addresses these concerns.

“Designing Leadership Like Jazz” is about understanding the centrality of leadership formation in shaping, or designing, leaders as well as understanding leadership as an art. In this chapter, I identify what leadership formation is and is not. Drawing on the language of jazz music and related arts, I also surface strategies and lessons that can be used by anyone who leads or aspires to lead. Not only can the lessons be applied by anyone who leads or aspires to lead but they also can be applied anywhere, at any time, and in any context. The lessons apply to us as individuals, in intimate relationships with family and friends, in community settings, in workgroups, among team members, in organizations and institutions, and in nations.

Sequestered in their boardroom, Morgan Donne, the CEO of a struggling financial services company, recounts their past successes. Determined to help her inner circle remember what it is like to be part of a winning team, she invites them to share a story about their strengths. Morgan begins. Then the CFO shares his story.

Addressing the challenge of continuously strengthening our own leadership begins with considering our self-efficacy, our belief in our capacity to carry out desired actions, and its influence on our agency, our actual capacity to carry out desired actions. Our agency grows when “nudged” along by our self-efficacy. However, this requires insight into what is happening around us, achieved by looking to the following two leadership horizons:

Presence, how much we notice and attend to what is happening, with empathy, for all stakeholders.

Vision and values, why we do what we do, how we see ourselves, and who we aspire to be.

Beyond what these two leadership horizons offer separately, together they influence the stories we shape in our “storied space,” the place we each occupy in which the events of the past and the possibilities of the future converge in our ever-unfolding present. We constantly draw together emerging insights to keep making new meaning and ideating possibilities best matched to addressing emerging challenges. As our understanding sharpens, we narrow our options to the best fitting one, shape it into a prototype, and test it in action. Throughout this, we constantly monitor the resonance of our self-efficacy and agency to keep the actions we intend undertaking realistically sitting at the threshold of what we can nearly accomplish.

Rather than mapping a fixed blueprint, this design approach offers rigor and agility, enabling our agency to grow organically, culminating in leadership fit for purpose, including a sound capacity to strengthen our own leadership, by design.

Process of Design

This chapter illustrates how human-centered design (HCD) principals can activate Fe+Male leadership synergy inside an organization. We explore how it is possible to: foster a favorable environment and culture that values gender inclusivity; ends blatant discriminatory practices to which many organizations are blind; fortify the confidence of highly capable women and men; and reconcile the divergence of views, communication, and unique leadership styles between men and women leaders. We look at the experiences of women inside organizations along with the beliefs, aspirations, challenges, and needs of women. The chapter provides an HCD guideline for the reader to align the current modus operandi in their own organization for better gender synergy.

We know that complementary male and female styles of leadership create invaluable synergy, and that organizations with more women on board and senior management positions will, on average, outperform organizations without women at top positions. However, women, especially at the top echelon, are sorely lacking in numbers. Without more women around – real synergy is impossible. Increasing transparency, policies such as “disclosure of the gender pay gap” and advocacy by senior leaders will continue to break down some of the barriers and biases, but statistics across all industries and countries show that we are a very long way off and need a new approach to end this dilemma.

How can HCD increase the percentage of female leaders at the table and the chance for gender synergy? In this chapter, you learn facts to fight fiction and influence mindsets that are limited by biases. This chapter introduces four specific target areas to advance Fe+Male synergy. Although most men (based in democracies) intellectually agree that men and women are equal and are highly offended when their sanction for equality is brought into question, most are completely blind to how daily actions (many unintentionally) perpetuate the state of inequity. The biggest leadership issue is getting the whole organization aligned with the principle as well as a visible manifestation of gender synergy.

Today’s business leaders face a global environment that is marked by increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous (VUCA) conditions. Design thinking offers a proven way to navigate in a VUCA environment. I used this approach while serving as a military officer in Iraq and Afghanistan. This chapter focuses on what I learned from applying design thinking to our operations as well as on insights from businesses that have also successfully integrated design thinking. I use the framework “inspire, ideate, and implement” to describe how I utilized design thinking. I finish the chapter with key factors for successfully employing a design methodology to VUCA problems.

Design thinking empowers organizations to tackle successfully VUCA challenges. Inspiration allows designers to frame relevant problems that clients care about. With the pressing challenge in hand, designers immerse themselves in the context of a problem to empathize with a customer’s concerns. They synthesize input from a variety of diverse sources, and meet experts who can give meaning to their collected data. With this comprehensive picture in hand, design teams brainstorm new possibilities as they move into ideation. Taking their ideas out for a test run, they iterate the most promising ways to move into action. They conduct pilot projects, adapt to what works best, and share their learning from the process. Leaders with a design mindset, aligned with a collaborative organizational culture and congruent support systems, can build an innovative enterprise that is primed to thrive in a VUCA world.

Resilience is the ability to snap back after experiencing trauma, and is increasingly important for leaders in today’s complex, global world. Resilience can be learned, which is a great news for leaders wanting to sustain through tough times. When adversity arises, resilience becomes the tool to help us grow stronger. Unfortunately, most organizations do not purposefully design themselves to foster a resilient workplace, leaving leaders to do this work on their own. By not investing in building resilience in employees, organizations are missing an important way to differentiate themselves from the competition. Workplaces that build resilience into their practices, culture, and development benefit from employees who sustain, even thrive, through complex change and market shifts.

This chapter explores how the habit of “stealing time” can build stronger, more resilient leaders, in adverse times. We will also discuss how reshaping our own mindset makes us stronger and ready to tackle daily challenges. Then we focus on spiritual, emotional, physical, and mental components of resilience. By increasing our resilience, we also gain a sense of cognitive freedom – a sense of empowered problem-solving and creativity – that can be a positive and contagious force throughout our teams and organizations. Finally, we focus on the organizational “streams” of resilience, which allow organizations to build greater resilience capacities at all levels. By using classic organizational design principles, we begin to see how we can help everyone live and work more fully and with more vigor.

Flow-based leadership exists when leaders commit to maximizing their own peak performance (“flow”) and to facilitating the flow states of others. This results in team and organizational flow. Meaning making is what binds an organization to its purpose. A recent McKinsey study shows that when people work in flow, their productivity increases by five-fold and has the effect of elevating individual, as well as organizational, well-being. However, as leaders come and go in organizations, the commitment to a model of meaning-making and sustained peak performance can be tainted through politics, silos, and personalities as varied as the leaders themselves. How can an organization sustain a flow-based culture over long periods regardless of who is leading it. 

Georgia Smoke Diver (GSD) is an extreme, experiential training program in the fire service. There are over 1,000 GSDs as of this writing. At least 100 of these come back twice a year to help teach the class, which has about 40 students, on their own time and for no pay. They take time away from their families, often using precious vacation time, because they are committed to making firefighters better. This program changes lives. Since 1978, GSD practices mindful leadership development for growing and mentoring leaders. Their model of flow-based leadership fosters cultural intelligence and social capital to identify and nurture leaders over time. This chapter explores the dynamics of how GSD uses design principles to balance deliberate and organically driven leadership development.

Context for Design

Innovation is widely considered critical for organization’s success. We know that innovation happens in the presence of certain values and behaviors, hence it is a question of culture. Culture in turn has one critical influence: the leaders of an organization. That is why understanding how to design leadership for innovation should be of interest to anyone who wants to improve their organization’s innovation performance.

While leading by example is generally the best way to establish the desired values and behaviors, it is not in every leader's ability and comfort zone to exhibit the kind of leadership that emulates innovation. Therefore, I have started to differentiate between “leadership of” and “leadership for” innovation. Each has a different skill and mindset, and a different role to play in making innovation happen.

This chapter starts by looking at the drivers behind the context of the twenty-first century to answer the question: “Why innovation matters more in the twenty-first century than ever before?” This is followed by an introduction of a framework that focuses on areas where innovative companies do something different from their less innovative counterparts. The chapter continues with some insights on why organizations and their leaders struggle with embracing innovation before taking a look at “leading of” and “leading for” innovation and introducing the concept of “ARTISTIC Leadership.”

Often the context of the twenty-first century is described as volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous (VUCA). Influenced by this context, combined with the exponential development of new technologies, how and where we work has changed. Not only that, the VUCA context and different ways of working make it necessary to review the role of and demands on leaders, and the work environment they create.

The purpose of this chapter is four-fold. First, we explore what the changed and challenging context of the twenty-first century means for leadership. Second, we share observations on the impact and influence of the built work environment on culture, workflow, and employees. Third, we identify how and why demands on the physical workplace have changed. Finally, we outline an approach that allows leaders to get the most out of the built environment when it comes to shaping culture, supporting workflow, and contributing toward employee satisfaction.

How to Test Your Own Effective Leadership by Design Prototype

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