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Inspiring Leadership by Design

The first duty of a manager is to inspire the people we hope to lead.
Inspiring Leadership by Design
Image credit: Thomas Barwick | Getty Images
4 min read
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When you show up at work every day do you think of yourself as a hands-on manager who’s helping everything run on track, or as a leader who is inspiring progress?

There’s nothing wrong with being the first. Things need to happen on time and as promised. But we all know the joy of being part of something led by a person with a clear and genius-like vision -- someone who knows how to face a challenge and rally people around a common vision and action. It might be a brilliant founder of the company who is creating the next “big thing.” Or a member of the clergy who inspires collective action for social justice. Maybe it was a coach or a teacher who challenged you to reach just a little higher.

When I think of all the leadership books I’ve read, and the many lectures I’ve attended, they all feature anecdotal stories of amazing people and how they proved grace under fire. But those stories don’t provide a DIY method that helps us become more effective leaders. As a COO with a design-thinking bias, I believe the first duty of a manager is to inspire the people we hope to lead. Design thinking tells us that creating inspiration is a central part of a manager’s responsibility.

Related: 7 Characteristics of Inspiring Leaders

Inspiring “What Beautiful Looks Like”

Design thinking principles begin with this essential directive: “First inspire -- lead by design.” True leaders take the time to show people what success will look like once it’s been achieved. They engage their team both emotionally and intellectually in “what beautiful looks like.” They act with intention to inspire their colleagues and show them how to inspire each other.

Literally, as leaders, we are called on to take our employees on a quest -- a collaborative journey that has a clearly defined view of what’s ahead and how to get there. Inspiring the people we work with underpins everything we know about design thinking. 

Coaching versus control

Some bosses feel the need to watch over our collective shoulders. They control information and dole it out on an as-needed basis. Unfortunately, instead of teaching us to think, they’re simply teaching us to follow instructions. I try to remind new leaders that you get paid for what you know and how you think, not what you do.

Modern business coaches not only inspire people to dig deep and find the toe-holds that will get them to the top, but also to help individuals learn to work with their own strengths and weaknesses. And they offer a safe atmosphere in which to reach farther, take risks and get stronger.

Related: Learn When to Delegate and When to Micromanage

Inspired to let go

Many managers are promoted into positions of leadership. But it can be very hard for a good manager to let go of the details and shift focus. This was my own experience, earlier in my career, when I shifted from being a very hands-on manager to a CEO. As a CEO, I found that I enjoyed articulating a vision and strategy for the company, but I resisted delegating the details to my managers. Being a good leader meant letting go of what I was good at and trusting that the people would follow -- and act on -- my lead.

Related: The Dangers of Being an Empathetic Leader

Empathy that inspires innovation

I started this piece by asking if you are a manager or a leader? Either way, think about what you can do to “manage inspiration.” This begins by understanding the needs and values of the individuals you lead. In a design-thinking company, we call that step “empathy.” Not sympathy or accommodation. It’s the kind of leadership that puts people -- your employees and customers -- at the center of truly understanding what’s important to them.

Empathy demands understanding the problem you’re trying to solve in terms of other people’s vantage. I recently watched one of my colleagues begin a planning session -- not with goals, event specifications and schedules -- but by asking how our client’s innovation might change the world. Her empathy was at the core of creating inspirational ideas from her team.

To me, a true leader needs to be a big-picture person. Someone who articulates a clear vision, purpose and strategy, and inspires other people to execute against a plan that describes “what beautiful looks like.”

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