The Traditional Leader is Dead, Long Live the Design Thinker


The theatre was dark, the last two speakers had been good (but not great) and I was starting to regret the carb-loaded lunch.

But then Andy Lark burst on to the stage. (Andy is the CMO of Xero)

“The great companies of our day are built by their doers – not just their leaders. The people who can act. The people who do”.

I was floored by how much Andy’s comments - that we need less traditional leaders and more ‘doers’ – resonated with the Wired for Wonder conference audience.

As he continued with his lightning talk, that the ‘Big Con’ being perpetuated is that everyone working for an organisation needs to aspire to senior leadership positions to make an impact and that companies should focus their energy and resources building these people. He claimed the truth was in fact that that there are not enough leadership positions in any company for people to be put through that amount of training.

So if Lark is right – and the great modern companies are built on the backs of the doers, we need to think about what kind of development enables people, who would have traditionally been promoted to leadership positions, to become great doers?

A new breed of leadership development is coming.

We believe that Design Thinking is one of the most powerful ways to arm this group of doers with the mindset and skills to act effectively and be innovative in their roles.

This isn’t just our opinion, though. Talking to our clients, we are hearing that the link between design and business is becoming more pronounced each day. Business models are shifting. The top down hierarchical structures are changing with more collaborative, inclusive models taking their place. The voice of customer has never been louder and we need ways to make sense of what they need and value and turn these insights into new experiences and products.

Whether you are a huge supporter of design-led thinking in business, or believe it’s corrupting the discipline of design – it’s hard to ignore the parallels between designers’ mindsets and the skills needed in the future of work.  

We explore three of the design thinking mindsets and their parallels to the needs of modern business and modern leaders.

1.     Curiosity

Curiosity is a mindset for the Doers as it assumes that you don't have all the answers. Instead the leader is genuinely curious to learn more, to understand a problem or challenge and then apply this learning to re-imagine a better way.  A curious leader is one who responds with a question first as opposed to jumping directly to an answer.  They are curious about the market and world around them and importantly curious about the people they work with and the skills they bring to the team.  People who are more curious have a tendency to be more experimental as they don't assume they know the answer, they bring with them a learners’ mindset.

2.     Empathy

Empathy is the cornerstone of design research. Understanding the people who use our products and services. Getting closer to what our customers want. They can be internal customers such as the team you are managing or external clients. Empathy is shifting perspective and not seeing problems, challenges and possibilities through your own eyes but through the eyes of these end-users. Empathy is as important in a great leader as it is in designer. In design, it means you design for the end user’s needs.  In leadership, it means you can view the world from your team’s perspective and can understand their values and needs more effectively.

3.     Action / Experimentation

“Probably the most characteristic aspect of thinking like a designer is driving towards an outcome. Design thinking entails providing clarity in the journey towards defined purpose.”

Driving towards an outcome. Providing clarity and defined purpose. Sounds more like Peter Drucker’s Effective Leaders or Jim Collins definitions of Level 5 CEO’s than ‘design’ work. But these are the words of Carola Verschoor, author of Change Ahead: How research and design are transforming business strategy.

Adopting the design thinking mindsets and becoming a doer will naturally lead you to action and experimentation. You will be more comfortable knowing that you probably won’t get it right first time. It is part of your process, one of many iterations. You will be failing small and failing fast. Most importantly, through doing and experimenting you will be learning all the time.

What do you think are the most essential skills for the next generation of leaders? Tell us on