The Daily Heller: Seeing Is Leadership

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I am not a big fan of programmatic gumbos and big ideas that promise to answer any of life’s problems. I am especially leery of formulae that in any way use design as a tool for strategic promises. So when I picked up the book VisuaLeadership: Leveraging the Power of Visual Thinking in Leadership and in Life by Todd Cherches, CEO of consulting firm BigBlueGumball, I figured my reservations (or bias) would be validated. I was wrong. I was struck by Cherches' intelligence, logic and wit, and by how he blends familiar aspects of popular culture and leadership. I spoke to him recently about his book and "The Power of Visual Thinking," his TEDx talk.

For millennia power resided not in the word but in the visual. Of course, the invention of the printing press changed all that. Not only was the word power, those who "spoke the word" gained the power. How do you distinguish, if at all, the 15th-century word and the 21st-century visual?Ultimately it comes down to one word: communication. Whether one communicates visually, auditorily, through reading/writing or kinesthetically (i.e., through movement)—the four of these methods are commonly referred to collectively as “VARK”—it’s about getting ideas out of your head and into the heads of others so that they can “see” what you are saying. Just as one must be “literate” in order to comprehend the written word, in the 21st century those who are “visually literate” will be best equipped and enabled to leverage the power of visuals—in all forms—to capture the hearts and minds of others.

You have a section entitled "Leading With … Visuals." What is the significance here? Are you saying that those who can draw their thoughts are in a more powerful position vis a vis getting ideas across than those who simply state them?

Just as the classic saying goes, “he (or she) who wields the pen, wields the power,” leaders who can think and communicate visually have a distinct competitive advantage over those who can’t … or don’t. The most common word that comes up when discussing leadership tends to be vision. And by “vision,” in the context of leadership, we are referring to having an idealized picture of the future in one’s “mind’s eye” that is different from and better than the current reality. So, for a leader, step one is formulating that vision; step two is communicating that vision to others in a clear and compelling way so as to inspire others to not only follow you, but to want to work with you and for you to help turn that vision into a new reality. So, yes, the ability to draw one’s thoughts is a powerful way of getting them out there into the world so that others can “see” what you’re thinking and saying. But so is the ability to use other mediums including photography, art, dance, poetry, theater and any other form of creative language that will enable you to translate your ideas into actions to produce change.

How should leaders conscript visuals into their armies? Does this imply that designers have a greater role in corporate structure than they've had in the past? Does it suggest that strength comes with "good design" or simply with "effective visuals" regardless of the design quality?

Leaders already use visual thinking and visual communication in their everyday lives—often without even realizing it. If you are using PowerPoint slides (even if badly done, as most are), you are using visuals. If you get up at a whiteboard or flipchart to start mindmapping or storyboarding an idea, you are using visuals. If you use data visualization in the form of graphs, or process diagrams, or a company organizational chart, you are incorporating visual methods to illustrate ideas. Now, whether it is being done as well or as effectively as it could be is a whole other question! Unfortunately, most business professionals do not have any kind of design background, so they do the best they can with the tools and abilities they have. So this is where those with a design thinking mindset, tool set, and skill set can really “step up to leadership” and wield considerable impact and influence. Just as those who speak a language fluently will be able to communicate far more effectively than those who only have a rudimentary vocabulary, those skilled in design, visual thinking and visual communication will have a distinct competitive advantage.

Many companies large and small have learned over time that the better (more memorable, etc.) their overall design identity is, the more positive the relationship of the consumer to their company or product. What is the method of making hay from visual leadership?If you think about it, we each have our own “brand identity.” In other words, what we are known for and known as. From a leadership perspective, we often talk about someone’s “leadership brand.” Similarly, in my coaching practice I often talk to my client in terms of these “3 Vs”: Visibility, Voice and Value. This has to do with if you are seen and how you are seen (“Visibility”); if you are heard and how you are heard (“Voice”); and in what ways and to what extent are you perceived to be making a contribution (“Value”). All three of these attributes are based not on your own perception … but from the perspective of others. Another way of looking at it from a UX perspective: What kind of “user experience” do others have when interacting with you? Someone with a design thinking—and especially a UX-type background—can leverage their knowledge and experience to contribute to enhancing the end user’s experience when gauging an individual’s leadership effectiveness. And, as such, someone who develops their abilities in the art and science of visual leadership will be able to enhance their personal effectiveness.

Your book is of interest to designers because you are addressing strategies that involve them. But are you saying that designers are essential or nonessential to this process? My answer to that question is not “either/or,” but “both”! Designers, based on their experience and expertise, bring a unique and powerful perspective and arsenal to the table. They have the ability to see things and notice things, and to identify problems and discover solutions in ways that nondesigners couldn’t even imagine. It’s as if designers have a superpower—like Superman’s x-ray vision—combined with a toolkit, like Batman’s utility belt, that equips, enables and empowers them to solve problems … and, in some cases, even save lives! So, in this regard, when it comes to the integration of form and function, and the blending of art and science, designers are essential and indispensable in terms of their contributions. I think what my book VisuaLeadership does is demonstrate—both to designers and, of equal importance, to nondesigners—how thinking and communicating more visually can help anyone to change the world … simply by more effectively getting others to be able to “see” what you’re saying.

I would be remiss if I didn't congratulate you on making such a potentially dry subject so engagingly entertaining. One of my favorite chapters is "How My Cardiologist Almost Gave Me a Heart Attack (Or, the Right and Wrong Ways to Communicate Numbers)." How are visuals best deployed to keep them safe and fuzzy?Thank you for saying that! My “3 E’s/3 I’s” approach to everything I do—including writing this book—is called, “Educate, Engage and Excite.” I strive to Educate (or “Inform”) people through the presentation of important ideas and information; capture and hold people’s “Interest” by actively Engaging them through entertaining storytelling; and Excite people so that they are “Inspired” to go out there and change the world. Depending on the context and the purpose, the chosen visuals can be whimsical and fun … or they can be devastating and heartbreaking. This is where the congruence of words and images is so essential. And this is where having a design thinking background can enable someone to take advantage of their knowledge, experience and skills in the most effective way. Just as any tool of any kind can be misused or abused, I’m sure that the list of design-related horror stories is miles long.

Is there any downside to leading with visuals?Just as there is no one-size-fits-all solution to any problem, visuals may not, necessarily, be necessary or appropriate for every situation. Sometimes, the written or the spoken word is sufficient or—in some cases—preferable or more effective than a visual might be. We, of course, need to consider our audience (or various audiences), and design and deliver our messaging in a manner and/or medium preferable to, and most effective for, them. Just as one person may prefer listening to an audiobook rather than reading the hardcover, someone else may prefer a graphic novel, a pop-up book or a video. So we need to be open, flexible and innovative in terms of our chosen approach. In fact, in VisuaLeadership, I distinguish between these four types of visual thinking–based approaches: visual imagery and drawing; mental models and frameworks; metaphor and analogy; and visual storytelling and humor. And again, as in any situation, a wrong decision can backfire on you … while the right choice can move mountains.

If you were to present this material to an audience of graphic or UX/UI designers, how would you alter your content, if at all, to preach to the converted?The closing line of my TEDx talk on “The Power of Visual Thinking” (the transcript of which can be found in the Introduction of my book), is this famous quote by the French novelist Marcel Proust: “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new lands, but in seeing with new eyes.” Those trained in design thinking view the world through that lens. You know the value and the power of good design, and the horrors of poor design. However, most of the world does not have your design background, knowledge or experience. So, if you want to have impact and influence, if you want to lead, if you want to change hearts and minds so that you can change the world, you need to be able to get others to “see” what you’re saying. And leveraging the tools, tips and techniques I illustrate, both verbally and visually, in my book, will enable you to do so more effectively and more successfully. My wonderful new website designer, Nancy Siegel, recently introduced me to this simple-yet-powerful quote from graphic designer Saul Bass: "Design is thinking made visual." And, as designers, with this understanding and appreciation, you are more equipped than anyone to bring this quote to life.