Moving Beyond the Dichotomy of Control Freak vs. Negligent Leader
“I haven’t quite found the balance between hearing everyone’s voices while still being able to point them in the right direction” – confessed a design lead with frustration.
The dichotomy is extremely common among new leaders in the creative space: What’s the right balance between democracy and anarchy? Between a “control freak” and an negligent leader?
It’s obvious that the old-school archetype of the “Creative Dictator”– i mean Director– is long gone: creative teams expect an open and inclusive leader that gets their hands dirty if necessary, but doesn’t micromanage. Someone who is in control, but is not controlling. Someone that has their backs while creating space to learn from mistakes. Someone that has a vision but is open enough to listen – all of this while working under pressure, time-budget constraints and the team’s morale.
Knowing exactly what to do as a leader is especially difficult because creative work is commonly ambiguous, creative humans require nurturing and stakeholder expectations are high.
A more inclusive mental model
For many years leadership has been thought of in terms of style, you either are “a visionary”, “a servant” or “a coach”… John Maeda helpfully describes these styles in the form of positions: front (visionary), side (coach) and back (servant).
The problem is… picking one.
Always leading from the front can be perceived as protagonistic. Always leading from the back as lazy and… always leading from the side as controlling.
Maeda then proposes leaders should walk backwards facing the team to keep their attention fully on you so that you can direct.
I think leaders should move around instead.
Moving around can help leaders balance their need to assure results, with the need of serving team members… working shoulder to shoulder with the need of making important decisions.
You don’t have to “pick a style”, the key is learning to adapt.
Leading from the front
As you start a project, be at the front. Take a proactive and visionary role. You are expected to be the driving force, setting clear objectives and guiding the team towards common goals and that’s ok.
You won’t always be at the front but while you are, your number one mission is to provide clarity.
You are expected to know the ins and out of the project, clearly articulate expected outcomes and take the wheel when its necessary.
Some moments when it’s useful to be at the “front”:
- Kicking off: Be outspoken and provide clarity over the goals, mission and vision for the project. Clarifying the vision, making sure everyone understands where we’re going and has the necessary tools to succeed will avoid confusion, unnecessary twists and turns and costly rework.
- Setting the stage: Introduce, lift and recognize team members and their accomplishments in front of clients and other team members.
- Managing change: Identify risks early and work on a new plan to minimize impact in costs and morale. Move to the front to communicate it clearly and make sure there’s alignment across the team and the client, then keep moving around.
- Setting the bar: Part of clarifying the mission and purpose of the team (why) is also clarifying expected outcomes (what). Show the team examples of what they have to accomplish, make it tangible by specifying what’s needed for the project’s success.
- Inspiring: Articulate a vivid vision for the team to create a sense of purpose and direction and inspire others to strive for greatness. Don’t forget to lead by example, embody the behaviors, work ethic and values you expect from the team. Be a source of inspiration and motivation.
- Troubleshooting: If things are not going as expected, identify the root cause of the problem from the back and prioritize rectifying course, then use your position to inspire change and motivate the team from the front.
Leading from the side
As the team starts to make progress, move to the side. Instead of the driver, you’re now the co-pilot.
As a co-pilot, you still have the visibility of “the driver”, but not the wheel. This is ok. Your #1 job as a co-pilot for the team is to make sure there’s no hierarchy of ideas — which means ideas can come from anyone in the team regardless of their position in the organization.
Your #2 job is making sure that — even if the car stops for gas along the way– we’re still going where we need to.
Some moments during creative projects where it’s useful to be on the side:
- Divergence/Ideation sessions: Avoid sharing strong opinions, use provocations instead. Ask “what if…?” and “why…?” questions. Follow their lead and productively challenge them to think about other ways to solve the problem. If the team has lost focus, nudge them in the right direction reminding them of the mission/vision for the project.
- Internal Design Critiques: Play as a facilitator or participant, not as the presenter (you’re on the side, not the front). As a facilitator, promote feedback and make help clarifying and organizing it (and move non-relevant feedback to a “parking lot”). As a participant, stay optimistic, help the presenter see possibilities to improve, ask clarifying questions and help the group keep the big picture in mind.
- Empowering bold moves: When someone in the team has a “crazy” idea, explore it together, assess the impact and risk together and commit to a plan, together. Help the team see the cost of exploring, and also the opportunity costs of not exploring. Enable imagination.
- Rehearsals: When you’re preparing for a big moment, be a partner to your team, suggest ways to improve, provide feedback, tweak details and work side by side until the result is satisfying for everyone.
- Creative Planning: It’s easier to plan top-down, but its way better to plan horizontally. Facilitate planning, build consensus and form a strong commitment doing it from the side.
- Providing feedback: Praise publicly, criticize privately. Never ever provide individual feedback to improve from the front. Do it from the side, take a moment to talk 1:1 with the team member and candidly discuss what happened, how it impacts others and a possible action to improve.
Leading from the back
In a military context, “air cover” refers to the support provided by aircraft in the form of aerial protection and assistance to ground troops. Similarly, you can provide “air cover” by offering support, guidance, and resources to ensure their success.
When you’re leading from the back, you provide the necessary air cover the team needs to succeed. It’s as important as leading from the front.
Here’s how you can lead from the back:
- Evangelizing: Be an advocate of your team in external forums. Find ways to talk about their impact and how important it is to the organization’s success. Evangelize.
- Advocating: Make sure your team has all the resources they need, negotiate time, budgets, deliverables and manage the expectations the organization has about them. Push back for them.
- Designing the team: Define communication channels, collaboration tools, rituals, processes and structures, outcomes and KPIs. More on Design Ops here.
- Providing resources: Connect your team with knowledge, methods, mentors and anyone/anything internally/externally that can make their work better/easier/faster.
- Cheerleading: Cheerleaders have the honor and responsibility of creating a strong sense of school pride and elevating spirit within their school and community through five key roles*; help raise the team spirit as you (collectively) go through tough moments
- Interning: If the team is working hard on a deliverable and your hands are not required, bring everyone coffee. Literally and figuratively speaking, a leader should support the team in any way they can, even if that means becoming “the intern” for a day.
After years failing and succeeding in leading creative teams, I’ve learnt that there is no step-by-step guide to mastering this role. Instead, it’s about learning to navigate the delicate balance between control and empowerment, between leading from the front, side, and back.
The movement can happen project to project or even day to day. In any given day there may be a time to be in the front and a time to lead from the back. Follow your instinct. use adaptability as your greatest ally.
Embrace the fluidity of your role and be open to learning and evolving along the way. By doing so, you’ll create an environment where everyone’s voices are heard, collaboration thrives, and exceptional outcomes are achieved.