The 3 Stages of Powerful But Simple Leadership

Reader Resource

Position yourself for growth in 2017—join us live at the Entrepreneur 360 Conference in Long Beach, Calif. on Nov. 16. Secure Your Seat »

We all know simplicity when we see it, and we recognize its value -- especially in the world of design. But that doesn’t make simplicity an easy thing to pull off.

Related: The Secret to Successful Product Design? Simplicity.

Just as it's tough to achieve elegant simplicity in design, the written word or other creative pursuits, it's tough to achieve simplicity in leadership -- a talent which eludes many of us.

Time was when the “old model” of leadership prevailed and tended to rely on big presentations, esoteric ideas and high-level stats. Leaders shared concepts through convoluted thought processes and jargon-filled takeaways. Wow, we all thought. That person is obviously on another level. I don’t even get what [he or she is] saying.

Thankfully, that model is on its way out. Instead, today, a designer -- visual, UX, or otherwise -- may strive for simplicity, producing an "aha!" moment for the user. And that simplicity may be so seamless that the user simply uses the product without an awareness of the designer's actions.

Similarly, leaders can demonstrate their value by sharing simple, straightforward insights in a way that leads people to yet another kind of "aha!" moment. Like effective artistic designers, leaders should be in the business of creating human-centric, shared experiences.

And, like designers, they should also be aware that the "delete" button is their best friend. It’s easy to be complicated but a lot harder being simple enough to get a whole room to just get it.

In my experience, a shift from the “old model” of leadership to a flatter, more universally understood model occurs over three stages:

Stage 1: Leaders are reactive and commanding. Things are done in a specific way because they’ve always been done that way. Unfortunately, this mode of leadership dominates many businesses.

Stage 2: Leaders have a sneaking suspicion that things should be different -- and that it doesn’t have to be this way. Still, they feel as though they don’t have the time or space to make a meaningful change.

Stage 3: Leaders recognize that it’s entirely possible, even likely, that everything they’ve learned about leadership and running a business is wrong, or at least misguided. They must disrupt the status quo; and going back to square one is the only way forward.

Certainly, rejecting convention and taking calculated risks can be scary -- designers who do this, remember, are the ones who make breakthroughs -- and the same holds true for leaders.

It all sounds risky. But what’s riskier is betting your business on Stage 1 thinking, when you have Stage 3 aspirations.

Related: Keep It Simple: Why Simplicity Is Key To Making Your Brand Win

Designers today understand that a worthwhile customer experience is rooted in elegance and simplicity. Talented designers put themselves in the shoes of their customers, recognizing that they must approach any challenge from a human perspective. Example: Today’s savvy customers won’t tolerate a complicated, convoluted experience. If they land on a screen and don’t "get it" right away, they’re out. That’s a problem that's driven designers to make this customer need a top priority.

It’s no surprise, then, that the companies that are design-driven and taking the world by storm are those headed by individuals far more interested in inclusion than standing alone on a hilltop. They want shared revelations and common ground, because that’s the kind of leadership that moves people.

If you’re a Stage 3 thinker willing to challenge the norm, you’re already well on your way to a more inclusive style of leadership. Some ways you can continue to cultivate it are:

1. Respect the challenge of being simple. 

The word itself makes it seem easy. But ask creative professionals worth their salt, and they’ll acknowledge the difficulty of keeping things uncomplicated. The same goes for your own leadership tactics. Lean into that Stage 3 mentality and accept that clarity requires significant effort.

2. Make time.

There’s absolutely no substitute for making time for constructive reflection. Be inspired by an eye-opening TED talk, a well-written article or even an elegant new product hitting the market. But recognize that to create your own best practices for simplicity in leadership, you have to set aside the time to think about it on your own. Designers must always be editing themselves, and so should you. Constantly tune your consciousness. Only then will you create your own aha moments to share with others.

3. Don’t be afraid.

When I started InVision, nobody handed me a road map for leading an entirely remote workforce. I had to give considerable thought to how it would work, but then I had to just do it -- and not be afraid to fail. Throwing convention out the window can be intimidating, but no one ever made a breakthrough doing something the way it’s always been done.

So, don’t just be hyper-observant, drinking in the examples of great leadership you see in the world around you. Be hyper-willing to disrupt the norm and create your own best practices for simplicity in leadership. It’s an art, and something you must practice, but you’ll witness how worthwhile simplicity can be when, at your next meeting or presentation, you see that lightbulb go on across a roomful of faces.

Related: When Testing New Ideas, Keep Simplicity and Your Ego in Check