Good Leadership by Design

Professor Kate Kearins

07 Nov 2019

Good Leadership by Design

What is good leadership? Within our ultra-noisy, hyper-dynamic, and archly competitive modern life, the question of good leadership can be as vexing as it is vital. An interesting take is that it’s all about design.

Ahead of the recent Future of the Future conference, AUT Business School hosted speaker Aiyemobisi Williams, co-founder and Chief Insights Officer of Massive Change Network (MCN). Aiyemobisi boasts more than 20 years of communications experience and strategic design expertise with a deep focus on innovation at the intersection of disciplines. Her work takes a holistic approach to helping clients create impact at scale and drive growth while making the world a better place.

“From the second we are born until the day we die, everything we see, hear and feel is designed. Design offers a path towards making positive impact on any scale, and it is a path that is open to all,” said Aiyemobisi.

For Aiyemobisi, good leadership is born at the crossroads of empathy (what she describes as “the core of design”) and accessibility. The nexus creates what Bisi calls the “new culture of leadership”.

“Mandated to inspire, not just inform, leaders need to be mindful of those who are ‘risk adverse’ and schooled in matters that are complicated. Acknowledge fear of the unknown and bridge the chasm to allow people to join us. We need to tamp down the heroic narrative and make the journey accessible.”

I've come across many different definitions of leadership over the years, but Aiyemobisi’s take on leaders as designers is particularly compelling. If we are here to make the world a better place (aren't we all, hopefully?) then it seems we need to accept the challenge of being a designer (at least of that little part of the universe where we have influence). That might be at home, school, work or in the community - or across all these arenas, by virtue of our intersectional lives.

Within the context of tertiary education, Aiyemobisi’s approach resonates strongly with me. Imagine lecturers and professors doing less lecturing and professing, and more inspiring. I’ll take a leaf from Aiyemobisi’s book and suggest we need to revision academics as learning designers and see how the shift in role and reputation benefits everyone.

The cost benefits of design are indisputable: A recent study monitored the growth of 14 design-driven companies and found that companies that place emphasis on design grew 299 per cent between 2003 and 2013. By contrast, over that same period, the S&P 500 grew just 75 per cent..

Aiyemobisi was also pretty clear about the impact of bad design. It leads to a bad life, whether we’re interacting with products and experiences, energy and movement, health and medicine, or leisure and travel.

We've all experienced poor design – indeed, those are the memories we tend to hold on to. My latest was a ‘switchboard’ experience where the LG customer service representative in Manilla had little idea what to do with a fairly standard query about getting a service person to visit. It crossed my mind that buying a new washing machine would have been more straightforward.

Good design, in contrast, may be less memorable simply because it feels natural and bespoke, as if it were designed just for us. My experience later that week with Fisher & Paykel was so much better. The guy led with heart, had empathy and knew what to do.

It’s little wonder that AIyemobisi considers love a crucial yet often-missing part of the global business conversation. She spoke of designing with love and integrity in order to make something last. The luxury of cynicism, she cautioned, is not something we can afford. Nor is going it alone. Experiences are co-created.

Which takes us full circle back to the idea of leadership by design. It's about authenticity, genuinely listening and seeking to understand the issues from a variety of relevant perspectives, and working together empathetically towards enduring solutions. All within a framework or design illuminated by a strong narrative and a clear story that can inspire others to come on board.

No small task. But one worth tackling - for the betterment of ourselves, our colleagues, our organisations and our world.

The original article appeared in Management Magazine.

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