The Designful Leader

Last night I was reviewing the Design School Boot Camp Bootleg, an interesting document put out by the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford. In the opening of the 36-page PDF is the “Design Mindset” or “D. Mindset” (supposedly because everything looks cooler when you shorten a word to one letter and add a period). As I read them again, I started to wonder if they couldn’t also apply to leaders. The D. Mindsets are as follows, with my leadership commentary below:

Show, don’t tell

We all know how frustrating it is to receive “orders” from a leader who is solely focused don telling, especially if what we need is to see the action, behavior of value from the leader first before engaging in it ourselves.

Create Clarity from Complexity

Much of the role of leadership is sense-making, reducing the complex system they view to a tangible action or behavior that followers need to understand. Leaders make sense.

Be Mindful of Process

While making sense of complexity for followers, leaders also have to juggle their attention on the overall process of their objective. In addition, leaders need to know that their development and the development of their followers is a process.

Collaborate across boundaries

In most organizations, the leaders who get things done are often those who step outside the lines of hierarchy to do so. Collaboration is becoming increasingly more vital…and that doesn’t even consider the effects of globalization.

Take Bias toward actions

In the end, leaders influence others toward action. Leaders who can get to that action the quickest (with sufficient background knowledge) are of distinct advantage.

Get experimental, and experiential

As the literature on innovation grows, our understanding of the need to experiment grows with it. Leaders need to let followers experiment, and experiment themselves. In addition, leaders ought to consider the experience of what it is like to work on their team and build a positive experience.

Focus on human values

I’d love to think this one is obvious, but many “tactical” or “transactional” leaders are focused on accomplishing the objective first and appealing to human values second. While this may work in the short-term, it is not sustainable.

Seven mindsets billed as required for engaging in proper design. Still, I can’t help but wonder if they ought to be re-billed as the “L. Mindsets.

Please provide comments or feedback to our guest blogger.

David Burkus is the editor of LeaderLab, a community of resources dedicated to promoting the practice of leadership theory. He is a consultant, a speaker and an adjunct professor of business at several universities. David focuses on developing leaders putting leadership and organizational theory into practice.

David is a graduate of Oral Roberts University and holds a Master of Arts in Organizational Dynamics from the University of Oklahoma. David is currently pursuing a Doctorate of Strategic Leadership from Regent University. He can be reached at

24 thoughts on “The Designful Leader

  1. Segal and Smith say that there are 4 core abilities with emotional intelligence: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship management. I have been involved with community mediation in the past few years. I became involved with this effort because I believe that humans are capable of greater emotional intelligence, relationally speaking. It does not seem like human beings have developed significantly in this area, especially when our first inclination is to solve conflict by using force or physical harm, no matter how educated you are.
    I have wondered if we use what God gave us to survive because mankind is so quick to go to battle when solving disagreements. My pastor talked about relationships during one sermon. He said that it is easy to hate someone; it does not take any effort at all. The work comes when you work through a situation whether you like someone or agree, or not.
    I think that animals have emotional intelligence. I have a female Golden Retriever. She is the most intuitive animal that I have ever met. I have always said that I truly think she can understand what I am saying. I know that she can’t, but she is truly that keen.

    Jeanne Segal, Ph.D., and Melinda Smith,M.A. September 2010, Emotional Intelligence (EQ)
    Five Key Skills for Raising Your Emotional Intelligence

  2. First, let me say thank you for such a great post. We greatly appreciate your time to help our class learn.

    I have never seen this D. Mindset bootleg document you linked. I greatly enjoyed reading it and found many ideas brought forth in it insightful to understanding the mindset of the “design thinkers” I work with. In my daily work I work with and engage a large number of “creative” people. These people range from print and online ad sales people, web designers, programmers, and many others.

    The seven mindsets put forward in the document make perfect sense to be applicable to leaders, almost common sensical. Business is not mechanical but it’s human and thats what these mindsets do, make business decisions take into account the human aspects of the decision. In many respects design is about creating memorable customer experiences, in the end those employees that report to you as a leader are your “customers”.

  3. I’d like to think that if someone is in a leadership position, they got there, because they had these mindsets. Having these mindsets would be good for many different areas of leadership, such as, dealing with employees, customers, and fellow leaders. With the right mindset, leaders will be able to motivate their employees to do the best job they can, while also be understanding of the task that they perform.
    In many of the job environments that I’ve worked in, leaders have been unable to keep the seven mindsets mentioned in this post. It is hard to be motivated for an employer who doesn’t value the employee or the work that they perform. I hope that if ever happen upon a leadership position, that I keep these mindsets, so that I can be an effective leader.

    • Zachary. I’d like to think that too. Unfortunately, a lot of people get put into positions of authority without them. Hopefully, we can all work together to lessen that occurrence.

  4. First, I would like to thanks Mr. Burks for sharing with us such an inspiring Mindsets and personal comments, which I believe will influence many people in their current or future position. During my work experience I have had many types of leaders, and I could realize how the different styles of leadership have had influenced on my performance, and also on the department. Leaders who increases followers’ communication, motivation and clarify the task to be accomplished will certainly get the best of their employees. I strongly believe that leaders, who utilize the concepts of the “L. Mindsets” and cultivate positive attitudes toward themselves and others, will receive higher accomplishments and results.

  5. First off let me thank you for taking the time to share some of your expertise with our class. I found these seven steps to be insightful especially since my current management seems to be lacking in these areas. Although each step is vital to a designful leader I believe the first two “Show Don’t Tell and Create Clarity from Complexity” provide the greatest benefit to the organization. Each of these steps will enable the management team to increase the efficiency of those performing the work. I often find myself spending more time trying to decipher my manager’s instructions, than performing the request. If management would not only take the extra time to show and provide clarity to request it would not only help employees perform but complete such task in a quicker time frame.

  6. Mr. Burkus, I wanted to sincerely thank you for taking the time to supplement our education with these very practical principles. While reading your post, I found the first two steps to be particularly important for practicing physicians. I consider medical doctors to be leaders in the practice of medicine and, as such, they ought to demonstrate these principles in their personal lives.”Show, don’t tell” reminds me that doctors should be role models to their patients, employees and the community of how to stay healthy and practice healthy lifestyle habits. For instance, it makes me uncomfortable seeing physicians smoking or not watching their weight, specially after making these recommendations to their patients.
    The second step, “Creating clarity from complexity” also resonates with being a good physician. Skilled physicians are those that can actively listen to their patient’s complaints, deduce complex medical problems, and then make simple recommendations as they explain in simple terms that patients can understand and follow. That, to me is a good, caring and competent physician.

      • Thank you sir. I am sure she is great physician and takes good care of her patients. I find that most physicians do want to do the right things for their patients and for themselves, but it often comes down to less time to do it all and to more responsibility bestowed upon them.

    • I agree with you Miguel, I can not tell you how many times I have been in a patient’s room and another physician had just explained to the patient the extent of their diagnosis and prognosis and the patient was clueless. As I am sure you can appreciate coming from a military background, making clarity from confusion is the key to a successful outcome. I constantly have to explain to patients in layman’s terms from medical jargon what it all actually means and what it is going to take from them.

      • Thanks Phil, you’ve said right. It is our job to make their already traumatizing medical experiences a bit less anxiety provoking. It’s amazing how taking a couple of extra minutes to explain to them in simple terms their medical care and to answer their questions can make a world of difference to them, right?

  7. People before the Mission

    Thank you Mr. Burkus for sharing these principals with our class. The D. Mindset is a very useful set of tools to have around and use from time to time to check ourselves as leaders and make sure we are focusing on things that are important. I subscribe to each and every idea that is described, and especially focusing on human values. It is so easy for us as leaders to put the mission before the people on a daily basis. We must find that balance where we focus as much, if not more, on our most valuable asset: our human capital. This D. Mindset model is one that I will continue to use in the future as a way of evaluating whether I am focusing on what I should be. Thanks again, Mr. Burkus for sharing your time and this valuable model with us.

  8. First, I would like to thank you for taking the time to post for our class and provide insightful comments to create meaningful thought. All of the aspects, of which you spoke about, are important in shaping a leader and maintaining positive leadership in the workplace. Too often, we forget how much the little things really matter. Those mindsets discussed can lead to ultimate success if followed. If we keep those things discussed in mind, we can not only forge ourselves into better leaders, but more importantly we’ll become better people.

  9. Thank you for your time in writing this post. I had never seen the document you presented to us. I was very interesting and I really enjoyed reading it.

    There was a quote that really stuck out to me. The article stated that we should assume a beginner’s mindset. We carry baggage from our past experiences. “These prior experiences, perceptions, assumptions, misconceptions, and stereotypes can restrict the amount of empathy a designer is able to build for his or her users”. I thought about how accurate this statement was. Our past experiences influence our present actions. This could be beneficial, in some sense, but it may also be harmful. Past negative experiences can prevent you from taking an opportunity that might be positive and beneficial this time around. Going in with a black slate allows you to focus on the possibilities of the opportunity. I have small children. I look at them almost daily and say to myself. “Wouldn’t it be wonderful to be that innocent again”. Each day they are exposed to something new. They take each opportunity and attack it with vigor. They don’t have past negative experiences to hold them back.

  10. Thank you for the post. I am going to have to provide a short coming of the process as many of us agree on the pertinent positives. My rationale is D.Mindset is time limited and does not strengthen critical thinking skills in times of necessity. Leaders fall into the trap of a well orchestrated plan as would be developed by D.Mindset and perform rehearsals and brainstorming to that regard. When confounding factors obfuscate the plan and require from the muscle memory (triggered response) to develop different solution that D.Mindset does not account for, Contingency Planning. Many leaders get analysis paralysis in which the details of a subject become so diluting that common sense analysis is lost. Gladwell states, ““We live in a world that assumes that the quality of a decision is directly related to the time and effort that went into making it…We believe that we are always better off gathering as much information as possible an depending as much time as possible in deliberation. We really only trust conscious decision making but there are moments, particularly in times of stress, when haste does not make waste, when our snap judgments and first impressions can offer a much better means of making sense of the world… decisions made very quickly can be every bit as good as decisions made cautiously and deliberately.”

    Gladwell, M. (2005). Blink: The power of thinking without thinking. New York: Little, Brown and Co.

  11. I would also like to thank you for taking the time to comment on our blog. We always love and respect an outside mind sharing their input!

    After looking at the Design School Bootcamp Bootleg, I also thought that it could be applied toward leaders. I thought each of the mindsets were great, but there was one in particular that I wanted to comment on. The last of the ‘L. Mindsets’ was focus on human values. Like you stated this does sound obvious, but it is nonetheless important. If a leader is solely focused on the project outcome and ignores their followers values, they are setting themselves for long-run failure. I have personally worked for someone that operates this way and it was not an enjoyable work environment. In order to obtain a sustainable and effective leadership position, you must appeal to human values and the objective with equal importance.

  12. Thank you for your post. The humanistic component seemed to resonate with me the most in the supporting article. Too often employees are treated as commodities, creating an unnecessary rift with administration. It’s not rocket science. If employees are satisfied that leadership appreciates their hard work, productivity is increased. This also ties back to experimentation and having trust in employees to make decisions. Autonomy is important and in some settings vital to employee satisfaction. In addition, communication is always key. Employees want to know what is expected of them. Leadership wants to know that their goals are being addressed and accomplished. Setting a good example in clarity of communication will not only enhance the final project, but will increase the quality of return communication back to management.

  13. Thank you sincerely for the post. After reading your post on the Design School Bootcamp Bootleg, I realized that sometimes these traits come more naturally for some, rather than others. The one that I found particularly interesting was to “create clarity from complexity”. As a manager, I like to break down the sequences, remove the “fluff” and have it “make sense” to my associates. I realize that I do this with my children as well. Instead of just saying do this or do that, I go to lengths to explain the “whys” and how it affects them or others. My husband, a quality consultant, tells me not to explain, just to tell them. Maybe that’s why I work better in team settings and love to work with them and he prefers to do it himself. Maybe some of these are just inherit in some people in all aspects of their lives. However, if we are not 7 for 7, we are no longer ignorant on these traits, and therefore no longer have an excuse to not incorporate them.

    • Thanks, Angela, I always enjoy reading your posts. Well, isn’t this the great debate… Are leaders born or are they taught? Personally, I think that it is a little of both. It seems that one’s inherent demeanor is critical when working with others. Some people truly can’t stand the distraction of having to work with others, but perform beautifully on their own. It just goes to say that if you can’t stand working with people, don’t step into a leadership role. If you do like people and want to lead, it is not something that just comes naturally and you are going to be a great leader to all people all of the time…that helps, of course, but there is much to learn about leading effectively and efficiently. A great leader will do whatever it takes to lead well.

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