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It’s okay to be a design leader

I’m encouraged by the number of people talking about how they are taking on more responsibility to lead design. Emma’s blog post was great about her decision to take on a new role, and Ale’s call out to bring together more people in lead design roles has had a great response. 

Setting out that you intend to lead is okay.

Leadership is about your own commitment to step in and lead. I don’t think it’s about job titles or waiting for someone else to tell you that you’re a leader.

Describing yourself as a leader is about making the public commitment to lead. That commitment then needs to be backed up by the example you set, the actions you take and what you demonstrate through your work. 

If you call yourself a leader and then don’t lead, that’s different. Anyone serious about leadership and calling themselves a leader should be careful with how they validate what they do. I’m increasingly aware of this myself.

Awards and public recognition are a good example. If awards give people a better platform to lead then they’re worth it (especially if they balance the diversity and opportunity for who has a platform to speak, be seen and to lead). But validating what you do in this way needs to be considered very carefully. Your actions and how you lead will always be more important than any public perception of you as a leader or your self importance within an industry or profession. It’s more important to do whatever it takes to push forward the work and the people you have the opportunity to lead. 

The way I validate leading design is two fold. Firstly, working in the open. Being aware of whether you’re in the uncomfortable place of being seen, and putting yourself in a position where your work enables others. You can still have strong ideas and lead by example, but doing so in a way where people can build on your ideas and work in the time and space that you create.

Secondly, feedback. Knowing which feedback matters, and creating your own feedback mechanisms. This means being willing to listen and not expecting to always get things rights, but still being prepared to work from a strong set of beliefs.

I’ve seen people pushing back against calling yourself a design leader. Hold yourself to account and be open to feedback from others, but don’t be afraid to step in and lead.

Ben Holliday is an experienced design leader, writer and speaker. This is his blog (started in 2005). You can follow all of Ben's blog posts by subscribing to the RSS feed, or follow him on Twitter for more regular updates.