Archive for the ‘Creativity’ Category


Design vs. Leadership: The Curious Case of Steve Jobs



One of my favorite reads of the last week was this description of working with Steve Jobs. The conclusion hit me with a big “Of course.”

“That is what I remember most about Steve, that he simply loved designing and shipping products. Again, and again, and again. None of the magic that has become Apple would have ever happened if he were simply a CEO. Steve’s magic recipe was that he was a product designer at his core, who was smart enough to know that the best way to design products was to have the magic wand of CEO in one of your hands. He was compelling and powerful and all that, but I think that having once had the reigns of power wrestled away from him, he realized that it was important not to let that happen again, lest he not be allowed to be a Product Manager any more.”

I worked through several hundred pages of Walter Isaacson psychobabble about the source of his impatience and poor treatment of others, and the answer is so much simpler than rage at being adopted or whatnot. Jobs was a designer who became CEO out of necessity and never figured out how to reconcile the tension between them (and maybe never cared to).

Designing and leading are very different modes of action. I say this both from my observations of people who are good at each and from my personal experiences.

Designing benefits from having the shortest distance possible between emotion and action. A good brainstorming session is five people in a room bubbling with new ideas and suggestions for improving others’. It is exciting and incredibly satisfying, though I also find it often frustrating along the way. You have a sense of what good would feel like, and you ain’t there yet. So that frustration drives you, generating new ideas that might get you to good. Stanford’s d. School emphasizes quantity of ideas and speed, and these both come from being very connected to your emotions.

Leadership benefits from having a long distance between emotion and action. As a leader, your every action impacts the people that get things done, and  acting emotionally means acting without really considering whether you are taking into account each individuals’  needs or the team dynamic as a whole. The best leadership I’ve seen has come from a quiet person listening, distilling a room full of drama to two or three key points, and making the unsolvable solvable.

That doesn’t mean that leadership is unemotional. Far from it. Leadership starts with caring about the goal and the people executing it. It continues with the same kind of excitement and frustration at things going well or badly. But I think that emotion always needs to be checked against your understanding, and that takes time.

It sounds like Jobs led as a designer. From “Inside Apple,” it sounds like this extends not just to designing amazing products but to an amazing company as well (their Monday meetings reviewing every product with all execs are genius). And in leading others, it sounds like he often acted too quickly from his emotion, calling someone a “genius” one second and a “bozo” the next–the same kind of swing between excitement and frustration that drives a designer. But in applying this to people, you come across as erratic, demoralizing, unfair. Good thing that he designed a company with so much opportunity for others to do great work that people were willing to suck it up and deal.

This raises an issue: how do you merge the two together and be a good leader of design? Is it a swing between acting emotionally and acting thoughtfully? Is it about understanding the design process but giving up your role in it so that you can focus on getting the most out of others?

My best assessment: I think it’s probably a bit of both–leadership skills and design skills are both tools that you have to have at the ready based on whatever is needed from the situation. As always, the goal is king. But I’d be curious to hear from any leaders of design out there.


Everything Good Starts with Listening


Man uses an ear trumpet

I’ve been reflecting recently on what’s worked for me in 2012 that I need to continue. And I’ve come to one big conclusion: everything good starts with listening.

Without a doubt, my 2012 work highlight was the leadership course I developed for JetBlue’s Captains, which was challenging because:

1. I didn’t know anything about being a Captain.

2. I certainly didn’t know anything about what it meant for a Captain to be a leader.

And so I hung out with Captains, asked a thousand questions, read their reports, and ultimately went to the first week of their Orientation. It paid off in participants actually finding something useful in the class, and an early class assumed I actually was a Captain.

Design thinking calls this “empathy.” In the empathy phase of a project, you are aiming not just for knowledge but for a deeper sense of what somebody’s actual needs are. A good design thinker’s antennae go up when they hear someone expressing any kind of strong emotion. They then pounce with questions or detailed field observations to understand where those emotions are coming from. You can consider yourself successful if you’ve identified something that the person themself does not know about their needs. From here, you have a good base from which to work.

I see the opposite all the time. A designer just jumps into making something without doing the preparation of getting to know the customer. This essentially means one of two things: you are designing for your own needs (which can work) or you are designing based on a trend or an assumption or an article you read somewhere. Namely, you’re designing to an abstraction, rather than to a person.

Incidentally, I also regularly quote Merlin Mann’s principle about doing good work: “First, care.” It seems like a contradiction to have two first steps, except they’re actually the same first step. Caring comes from a deep investment in a problem, which comes from investigation. I don’t understand the problems of transportation in Denver and thus don’t care and would do a poor job of solving them.

Though part of me now wants to look up what those problems are. And then go visit Denver and watch commuters struggle. I should probably nip that one in the bud.

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