By Margaret Alrutz
The very definition of human life is intertwined with the concept of growth. We all know, but sometimes forget, that we are not born fully formed adults physically or emotionally. Similarly, one develops leadership skills over time, with hard work.
So, how do we cultivate leadership skills?
With a background in comparative literature, I am always drawn to stories that help us learn about ourselves. In particular, I like Joseph Campbell’s concept of the Hero’s Journey as it relates to self-actualization and leadership.
Campbell was influenced by others, such as Heinrich Zimmer and Carl Jung, in formulating his theories about the role of myth in helping the individual to discover himself or herself. One of the central patterns Campbell studied over and over again was the myth characterized as the Hero’s Journey, which can be roughly summarized as the story of a man or woman who leaves his or her known world to follow a path, often enduring great suffering, through an unknown and new world order to some enlightenment from which her or she returns home with new gifts to share.
The hero essentially “grows up” and becomes capable of handling the challenges of adult life. For our purposes of understanding leadership, the hero’s return home to share these gifts of knowledge with others is especially important. In this sense, the path to leadership in any organization is very much a Hero’s Journey. Leaving the comfort of your known world and stretching beyond the domain of your specific design practice — these are requirements of the leadership journey. And, although I hope the journey does not involve true suffering, being bigger than your domain means challenging your current understanding of the world. In fact, a big part of the Design to Lead Summit will involve reflection on what leadership is and the pathways to it.
So what might becoming bigger than your domain look like? What unfamiliar territories could your leadership/hero journey enter into? Well, similar to the archetypes of Jung and the myth patterns of Campbell, there does seem to be some repetition among design leaders who repeatedly mention particular domains that they believe set great designers apart from good designers. Let me offer two related examples that embody this notion of stretching and becoming bigger.
The first is the concept of the T-shaped person recently brought up in the design and innovation discourse by IDEO’s CEO, Tim Brown. The basic idea is that each IDEO employee has a special expertise (or domain) that forms the “leg” of his or her T-shape. In addition, each person also has a “cross-bar” element of his or her personality or skill set that resembles empathy and the ability to build on the ideas of others — essentially collaborative skills. I have heard Tim describe that “cross-bar” as secondary domains of expertise that allow a person to connect with another person (and I like to picture these as little molecules being attracted to each other). For example, he has talked about his own “leg” of industrial design being complemented by his “cross-bar” of business expertise. And this business expertise, incidentally, was something he acquired later in his career. Anything here sounding like growth or a journey or expansion of some sort?
The second concept, and one that I believe to be crucial for any design leader and perhaps for any leader in general, is the domain of systems thinking. General systems theory is a wide-ranging topic that I have no intention of trying to cover within this short blog post (and I can feel you all casting your eyes to the ceiling in gratitude). The concept could be described simply as recognizing that any problem upon which you set your sights to solve is likely to be part of a larger system. The reason this domain or skill set is part of a leadership journey is because the usual human tendency is to drill down on a problem. In other words, we tend to attack a problem by considering only our personal experience relative to the problem. The ability to consider a meta understanding, or an understanding beyond our personal experience, of anything usually takes work (i.e., suffering). If you want to read more about this concept, check out the work of Herbert A. Simon, Daniel Kahneman and Mary Parker Follet, three great systems thinkers who also shed light on the nature of organizations and leadership.
When my 12-year-old niece first started to play sports, she hated to do the team warm-up exercises. She told her mother that she couldn’t do the stretching because it hurt. Of course, she didn’t understand that little bit of pain was actually a normal part of the process. Stretching your muscles increases flexibility for better performance, and it does hurt sometimes. I think that’s why we use the term “stretch” when we talk about reaching for goals or increasing our knowledge. Becoming a T-shaped person or a systems thinker does not come naturally for everyone. And even if you have some natural ability to develop these skills, expertise and mastery takes real work, in other words, real leadership.