Leadership By Design

By Leadership Champions Bob Tomes and Jane Warren

Think about where you were in January 2020 and what your plans were for the year.

No one would have predicted we would be self-isolating, wearing masks, and going for asymptomatic tests through an open-air drive through facility at the local fairgrounds. One of the gifts of this pandemic is to bring all of us into a far greater realization of how we are always living in the unknown - that life demands flexibility, agility and resilience from all of us.

As a leader of an organization today – how do you plan, how do you guide, how do you hold the bigger vision, how do you understand, how do you balance, how do you inspire?

The world wants and needs better leadership. Yet even the many who recognize this need for something new, don’t know what to do or how to become a leader for the future that is upon us. 

We believe that the key to the future of leadership lies inside the concept of agile design. As Greg Hart, Design Partner at Thin Air Labs, recently wrote in his “Design by Belief” post:

“Design is a response to the way we see the world and the way that we want the world to be. It is driven by aspirations that are rooted in the beliefs we have about the world and how it works. Most of those beliefs are hidden from our view, yet they colour and filter almost everything that we do and say. Design happens whether we are conscious of it or not.”

How will you design, or redesign, how you lead? One step at a time. With open eyes, a curious mind, a willingness to uncover your hidden beliefs, knowing that you will succeed, and you will fail - designing your new leadership approach with humility, agility and intention.

We have seen a lot of different leader styles over our careers and guided willing leaders through their own leadership redesign process. Three key principles guide our beliefs around emergent leadership.

Know thyself

Becoming a better leader starts by taking a long hard look in the mirror and being honest with what you see. What kind of a leader have you been? How do you show up and how do people behave in your presence? Does what you say both publicly, and especially privately, match your actions? How reactive are you when difficult situations arise? Do you know how to notice and name your emotional reactions in any situation?

These are just some of the questions leaders need to ponder, because a leader’s inner game drives their outer game. What goes on inside a leader’s mind, and how they react, dictates how the leader will act in any moment. 

Getting to know and navigate your inner game is the only way to alter the behaviours that are your outer game. Skills, tools, approaches and processes all help but ultimately achieve little in the way of sustained, impactful leadership until underlying beliefs are uncovered, examined and shifted.

Words matter, delivery matters more, intention matters most

For the most part leaders don’t do much. We think, plan, analyze and talk – there’s a lot of talking. Sure, what we say is important, and we all know that research shows that body language, tone of voice and eye contact are way more significant than the words themselves. Again, you can learn skills in this area, but your inner game speaks through your body/voice more loudly than any delivery technique.

Intention based communication is a capacity and a skill that most leaders haven’t come close to mastering. Intentional communication happens when there is a deep understanding of why you are communicating, the beliefs you are bringing to the conversation and the ultimate goal you are holding for that communication. As leaders, we have input coming at us from all directions and often simply react in the moment and ‘shoot from the hip’ -  regularly shooting ourselves in the foot. 

Leaders who display curiosity and openness (rather than blame and criticism), humility and vulnerability (rather than superiority and invincibility), authenticity and ease (rather than bravado and worry) - these are the leaders people want to follow in today’s world.

Getting it right is a fool’s game

We have all used and taken comfort in the approach of “when I have learned and practiced a new skill then, and only then, will I try it in public.” Those days are gone – if they ever really existed. Change is coming too fast and we have to meet that speed with a “learn as I do” approach. We need to be leaders who are willing to learn in public, practice in public, succeed and fail in public, receive feedback in public and be willing to try over and over again. Getting it right isn’t the right goal. Experimenting, in public, to the best of your ability, is the goal and provides an invaluable role model for all those around you.

Developing the capacity for humility and vulnerability is uncomfortable, edgy and ultimately deeply satisfying.

Of course, there’s more to this new way of leading than can be articulated in a blog post. We are going to have to learn together, share our wins and losses, be open to new ways of thinking and seeing the world. Knowing yourself better is a great place to start.