Dear Design Martyrs: The One About Leading

Posted inDesign Inspiration

“Dear Design Martyrs” is PRINTmag’s latest advice column from Debbie Millman. Debbie will respond to your most burning questions about design, branding, work-life balance, and so much more.

Dear Design Martyrs,

What advice would you give to someone who is stepping into a leadership position in a creative agency?


Nervous in Naperville

Dear Nervous,

I believe leadership depends on a unique combination of learned skills, and it’s up to the designer to discover and master these skills. The need for meaningful leadership has been fiercely debated in the last decade, whether in reference to leading a country, a political party, an organization, a family, or even oneself. Steve Jobs has famously stated that “innovation distinguishes between a leader and a follower.”

While that makes for a snappy sound bite, leadership is more complex than coming up with new ideas or products. I think the goal of a leader is to help people who may be struggling to find more effective ways of doing things and inspire people who are effectively doing things to surpass their expectations of what’s possible.

Leadership is a privilege, but it carries responsibilities. There are many diverse and inspiring ways to lead, and leaders behave in very different ways. Yet, I think all leaders share a common attribute—they have a mission or point of view reflected in nearly everything they stand for and is apparent in everything they accomplish.

The world is a subjective place. There is no empirical definition of what makes something good; often, only the test of time reveals whether it is or isn’t. Like art, opinions on greatness are varied and fierce. The quality of your work very well may be judged by those not schooled in the discipline, which can make for very challenging presentations or interviews. But showing a prospective employer the tangible benefit you can provide can be far more effective than telling them how, and only a leader can do this with gravitas, panache, and meaning. 

The tenet to “lead by example” is the most widely accepted guideline for effective leaders, and it clearly makes sense. But it’s not the only principle worth following. Congratulations on your new position, and good luck in this exciting role.

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