Discussion: What are the ingredients to become a great leader?

Let’s discuss.

Ever asked yourself how you can make more impact on your projects? Instead of reacting to poor product decisions, being in a position to drive real change? To be able to sit with a product team and make recommendations positively, that are implemented in a place that supports you? Now some of this relates to your ability to communicate clearly, the culture you work in, the receptiveness of what you do, your own knowledge and leadership. There are different flavours of leadership covering but not limited to – leading a design effort, managing a project team and providing a strategic direction. A world looking for better leaders has led me to read more about the topic (see references below and please add your own). We all have an opportunity to reassess how we “create” and perhaps an opportunity to lead away from the traditional technology driven approaches to something else?

So the question is:

What are the ingredients to become a great leader?


Daniel Szuc

Daniel Szuc is a Principal Consultant at a Apogee Usability Asia Ltd, based in Hong Kong, and previously worked on a usability team for Telstra Australia.

17 comments on this article

  1. Vicky Teinaki on

    Hi Dan,

    Great topic! Interesting that you start from leadership in general rather than just UX.

    Another article for the list is this one on design leadership:http://www.core77.com/blog/featured_items/the_many_faces_of_design_leadership_by_kevin_mccullagh_9962.asp

    Another I’ve seen that sums it up the best is on how MS did so much better under Gates than Ballmer http://blogs.computerworld.com/16391/why_microsoft_cant_innovate – the crux being that Gates was a hard man to convince but would take advice and ideas if he believed it would further the company. Believing in a vision, getting smart people around you, and then listening to them when they’re correct is one worth living by.

  2. Thanks Vicky.

    Yes think one of the most challenging roles of a leader is to build momentum behind an idea. With some companies, it means fighting against the legacy, process & politics that has built up over many years.

  3. Charles Hannon on

    There are many connections between the field of Servant Leadership (see James MacGregor Burns, Leadership; and Robert Greenleaf, Servant Leadership) and the practice of user-centered or goal-directed design. Essentially, the servant leader seeks to help others in the organization achieve their shared goals and aspirations; sounds very similar to a design methodology that centers around helping users accomplish goals in both software and humanely designed business practices.

  4. You must be able to speak the language of your colleagues in other disciplines. In order to influence and lead discussions, products and strategies you need to articulate your point of view in a language that is understood by marketers, engineers, business owners, C-level execs et al.

    When you can adequately convey your ux-driven point of view to these folks in ways they can digest, you stand a much higher chance of leading the discussion and driving that point home.

    A good place to start is with metrics. I wrote about briefly here: http://www.jeffgothelf.com/blog/informing-or-influencing/


  5. There is no one thing, and honestly 1 might say it all starts with the ppl you choose to follow you and how you recruit them.

    1. Knowing your limitations
    2. Building a vision around a strong yet flexible strategy
    3. Ability to think a few moves ahead and be agile when surprises occur to make appropriate course adjustments
    4. Based on 1-3 building the right team of lieutenants adding the ingredient of trust & passion.

    After that, I think a lot of things begin to fall into place a lot more easily. Control your contexts as much as any other ingredients I could think of.

    Keep your team passionate and engaged.
    The vision being led is as much from them as from anything else.

    On a tangent … if you are stuck and become ineffective at moving peers in your direction, the best way to move things forward for the org and for yourself is to just build it. They will either come or ignore you, but at least you’ll have closure and can move on.

  6. What are the ingredients to become a great leader?

    I’ve written about this from a management perspective ( http://www.poetpainter.com/thoughts/category/Leadership–Management/ ), but a lot of the points I bring up there would also apply to your more general question.

    Of the top of my head, I ‘d say a a great leader needs to be able to:

    -See the whole, so you can make tradeoff decisions

    -Care about the details

    -Listen to people as individuals, and have the empathy to understand what motivates different personalities

    -Cast a vision that inspires and unites individuals in a group (!!)

    -Be able to navigate (and leverage) the politics inherent in any organization

    -Balance pressing profitability decisions with an investment in long term strategic growth

    -Attract, manage and motivate the right people

    -Enable people to have their own “wins” (Leaders don’t need to be the ones in the spotlight)

    -See many different options beyond the ones presented

    -Constantly question why things are done the way they are and recognize opportunities to do things differently

    -Celebrate failure (that are the result of trying new things)

    -Speak with authority and confidence (but don’t be afraid to be honest)

    -Make decisions

    -Frame the right problems

    -Never forget that there is no business without customers

    Also, a bit more design specific, but here are some “ingredients” I’ve listed in different presentations:



    My 2¢

  7. If you take two examples, such as leading to make change versus leading to control, you have two very different approaches to frame leadership in, which manifest themselves in very distinctive ways. I don’t see how one can talk about leadership as an abstract construct and inquire what makes a good leader or how to become one.

    Here’s something interesting from Seth Godin:

    He’s describing a kind of leadership that sounds very compelling and very contemporary. I imagine him telling Taylor and Fayol about these ideas over beers and what they would say. They would say he is crazy and that he should pick up the tab. They would also say that people needed structure and direction. That people need someone looking out for them and in charge of the whole thing to ensure things happen as a unity; to infused the people with an ‘esprit de corps’ that ensures orderly harmonious work.

    Who would be right? All of them. Leadership is circumstantial. Do you think the type of leader you are in your professional life is the same type of leader you would be if your plane crashed into a desert island and you could lead people to safety? I don’t think so. You are obviously the same person and your beliefs and skills will always inform your decisions, but your ability to lead in one circumstance versus another is not something I would take for granted. For example, I’ve seen great professional managers who are mediocre (at best) soccer team capitans for example. So, is leadership some fuzzy ability that one posses? I don’t think it is.

    In all fairness, I don’t usually think about leadership. I often think about bettering myself and helping others better themselves though. I also generally don’t know what I am doing, and that is why I do it. I suspect this makes it look like I am committed or that I know where I am going or that I’m charismatic in some circumstances or that I have a plan, but none of these things are true. They do sometimes appear that way because the circumstances in which I am doing things might raise me to a position where others decide that this ‘looks like a leader’. And maybe that’s all it is — if you just do things and enough people aggregate around that thing, you are perceived as a leader.

    I’m really just talking out loud here, but I think there is a point. A lot of times leadership is discussed, there is this yearning fora prescriptive or accepted way in which leadership is understood or is practiced, but I rarely see any consistency in how leaders behave. I find it hard to model my behaviors after other people I consider leaders because our circumstances seem very different.

    I don’t know what to do with that. I wish I heard more people talk about how they behave, rather than how they think mythical leadership should be like. I am personally happy with doing things I find compelling enough and continuing to do it if others rally around it too. Maybe that’s my flavor of leadership. And maybe that’s not leadership at all — does it matter?

  8. Great discussion 🙂

    Livia – Like it.

    Some people think they are leaders and are not. Some people are leaders but dont think they are. Some people are simply waiting around to be led or for other people to show the way.

    How do you become better at leading?

    How do you give support and nurture those who dont think are leaders but are clearly leading people positive towards great work?

  9. Leadership comes in many forms. I had incredible coaches growing up for both soccer, Mr. Ken Fletcher, and for volleyball, Mr. John Jefferies. These gentlemen were great leaders. Why?

    * They taught the fundamentals of each sport and were patient in their teaching.

    * They respected the strengths of each player but ensured we spent practice time focused on weaknesses; making each player stronger, which ultimately helped the team.

    * They listened carefully to the goals of each player and shaped training programs accordingly.

    * When we won, all the credit went to the team and our performance. When we lost, they took the time to explain mistakes WE made (not one individual), keeping us focused on how such mistakes would ultimately make us stronger through understanding and practice.

    My father, a little biased here, but my father gave me some great advice. He said, “Jeff, I believe everyone wants two things in life: To feel like what they are doing is of value, and that they are valued in whatever process they are undertaking.”

    A leader is any individual, in any environment, who can create that feeling of being valued for those with whom he/she is leading.

    A great quote from the West Wing TV series: “You know what they call a leader without any followers? Just a guy taking a walk!”

    Leadership is NOT “about” the leader.

    The greatest barriers to effective leadership are ego and arrogance… but that’s another conversation. 🙂

    If of interest to the community, I’ve had two great conversations on the subject of leadership with Eric Reiss http://tinyurl.com/nebxgv and most recently with Joe Sokohl here on Radio Johnny http://tinyurl.com/ygarqkm

  10. humility

    I hear many insinuations that humility (i.e. @jeffpark’s “it’s NOT ‘about’ the leader.” quote above. Others have said that as well. I’m not sure if “Humility ” is the right word, but I know I have been effective as a change agent b/c of and in spite of my lack of humility.

    There is something about exuding confidence in any situation (no matter how wrong, uncomfortable, or apprehensive you really feel or are) that allows people to trust you. Now, that same lack of humility can turn into arrogance, condescension and hubris and these are troubling qualities.

    I haven’t read the book by Gladwell, but didn’t he touch on stuff like this in his book “Outliers”. I think of the great leaders and change agents in my life and “humility” is seldom a quality I would attribute to them, except one who was probably more of a great manager than a great leader, but definitely achieved tremendous change during a long tenure at a “design antagonistic” organization.

    I also wonder if “middle leadership” such as the previous example requires more humility than the guy at the top. Meaning if you are leading from the middle you need to show that you are a follower as much as a leader so as to remain in the position you have. Otherwise there could be a perception of threat.

    Anyway, just a thought on reading the comments here.

    — dave

  11. Jason on

    A handful of leadership qualities that I’ve experienced in the past and/or hope to experience one day.

    1- Trust. This goes for yourself and your team. You have to feel you’re on the right path when making hard(and sometimes what seem easy) decisions and stick to your convictions. You should also trust your team even more than yourself. Those who are in the trenches should know what it takes to make a project or a product successful. They will help stear a project in the right direction.

    2 – Potically savvy. Unless you’re sitting at the very top signing off on all decisions, you will at some point have to sell ideas, deliberate on controverial moves, backup decisions and even report some bad news from time to time. It takes skill to handle these types of discussions in a way that doesn’t harm your team or product. Note: You also shouldn’t go all in and build up that layer of slime and have enough political clout to make a run at a Senate seat tomorrow,there has to be a balance!

    3 – Use the word “no” now and then. A leader shouldn’t oversell their team and their abilities. Refering back to trust, you should know the limits and if a project could break a team or is just an outright mistake, just walk away. It makes no sense to take out a team for an ounce of glory.

    4 – Just listen and relax. Keep an open mind and don’t be the loudest voice at the table. In a past job, I worked with a senior leader who was very calm and had confidence in his team’s abilities as well as his own. The result was, when he spoke it was powerful. He chose his words and decisions carefully and they had immense meaning to everyone at the table. Meanwhile, they guy next to him was weighing in on every move and was diluting the value of his input with every word.

  12. The number one key ingredient is the ability to serve.
    Without service, a leader is not a leader, but simply a boss.
    Serving others is leading from the back, not the front.
    Anyone can lead from the front like a manager, director, team lead, etc., But not everyone can lead from the back like a coach or a grand parent.
    Leaders place their followers in front of them so that they can shine. If the followers are shining, receiving credit, and feeling valued, this reflects on the leader.
    If the leader is the one who’s shining and getting the credit then they are simply an egocentric individual.
    Leaders extract the best from people. They bring you up to their level instead of keeping you down.
    If they write a book, they’ll either serve by teaching a few concepts to newbs for free, or you’ll hear them talking about how no one else is as good as them because they have a book.
    Serving your followers makes your followers feel special. They will be attracted to you naturally.

    People say that a leader needs to have vision. Blow it out your ear. The people need to have the vision, the leader needs to install belief into their followers so that the people can believe that they can obtain that vision.

    I’ve been part of a leadership building team that meets regularly for the last 15 years. What makes some of the best leaders are the people who are raising up new and young comers to become great leaders themselves.

    Here are some sample to know if you are a leader or not.

    If you call yourself a leader and can’t be bothered to help a complete stranger for free in the late hours of the night from an emergency last minute call or Tweet- you’re not a leader.

    If you have tons of people following you for your knowledge on Twitter but you yourself constantly wreak of sarcastic comments and cruel remarks to others- you’re not a leader.

    If you pride yourself on being in the minority of cliques, special events, conference dinners with other senior co-workers, authors and friends that you want to be associated with but can’t take the time to treat a newbie to dinner and instil values to them while the other hot shots are partying it up- you’re not a leader.

    If you fuel the fires of pride by entering comments on only “respected” peer blogs that you deem valuable, but can’t take the time to enter a nice comment on someone else’s blog even though what they’re saying is bang-on – you’re not a leader.

    If you go to conference and tweet “Oh my gosh he/she is so correct I love you @person’sname you are god” to the same speakers year after year after year, but don’t encourage new people to speak or are not interested in what they have to say- you’re not a leader.

    If you don’t respond to a stranger on Twitter even though you know what they said to you was of great importance and inspired you, and they’ve been following you for 3 years and you don’t want to befriend them but can take the time to say “#poopin” to a fellow Sr. co-worker- you’re not a leader.

    Being a leader is not easy. It’s uncomfortable, challenging and draining. People will always have needs, people will always never “get it” and people will always need things explained to them.

    If you can take 5 minutes to sketch something out on a napkin to a complete stranger who asked you a question but doesn’t understand the concept of design, you are a leader.

    If you take that person out for coffee to sketch out that design and explain it to them in further detail, you are a leader.

    If you befriend that person and follow up on them, offer help, reviews and critiques every so often and build a relationship purely by chance over an extended period of time, you are a great leader.

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  14. I came across this today and thought you would enjoy it. It’s about the relationship between leadership and power. It spoke to me because it reinforces my belief that the qualities of successful leadership are circumstantial.

    “If you want to lead others, you need to get comfortable with the concept of power. […] emerging leaders sometimes stumble over the use of power for one of two reasons. Either they are too comfortable with it and wield it ruthlessly, or they are so fearful of it they avoid it completely.”


    If you apply these lenses to the decisions of leaders, you can see how the specific examples that Stephen, Jeff and others pointed out are decisions about how to use power in a particular set of circumstances.

  15. Very interesting conversation. But I really am at odds with a lot of what Seth Godin says as well as some of Livia’s related comments.

    First, let’s not confuse management with leadership. These are two very different disciplines. I have no doubt that a good manager can be a crap sports coach. Leadership is seeing what needs to be done and leading the way. Management is getting things done in a much more “hands-on” manner. Some folks are both good managers and good leaders, but these trumpeter swans are few and far between.

    Liv says that “leadership is circumstantial”. Sorry, it is not – at least not the TALENT to lead. There is a difference between TYPES of leaders (Dr. Paul Taffinder identifies seven: http://www.leadershipcrashcourse.com/cc_seventypes.html) and STYLES of leadership. And I will grant you that styles CAN be circumstantial – the best leaders master many styles. Sometimes you need to yell, sometimes you need to cajole. Sometimes you need to preach. Sometimes you need to support a process that has already started. Liv, check out Taffinder. Perhaps this is the behavioral analysis you’ve been looking for.

    As to “leadership” as a “fuzzy ability”, well I suspect it IS some kind of innate quality. If you look at the background of any good leader, you’ll find that this individual has consistently led his or her peers. Do a little research on LinkedIn and see for yourself. Search for CEOs of companies of more than 10 people. You’ll find that most of them have been leaders in other areas as well – student organizations, church groups, whatever.

    Liv does make one distinction that is important: “looks like a leader” is certainly NOT the same as “is a leader”. This is why I get so hot under the collar when people brag about their number of Twitter followers.

    Let me close this little rant with an anecdote about President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who I think was a truly gifted leader. One of his associates said, “I think he was psychoanalyzed by God.” I like that 🙂

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