Leadership is Dead. Designers Are Taking Over

This is a guest post by Jason DeMeo. Jason is the CEO of We Are Curio, a consulting firm that focuses on making innovation and design thinking accessible through identity, ideation and strategy. Jason serves as a Subject Matter Expert in Design Thinking and Adjunct Professor at Southeastern University. Jason is certified in Design Thinking from Harvard and holds a B.S. in Marketing and M.A. in Ministerial Leadership from Southeastern University. 

I need to get something off my chest.

Something that I have been feeling for a decade. Something that I would try to articulate to others but they would just reframe or dismiss it. Something that goes against what is so ingrained and celebrated in our culture that it is almost blasphemous.

Well here goes…

I hate leadership.

I hate it. I hate hearing it. I hate hearing about it.

I hated being told to be a leader growing up.

I am a CEO of a company and I still don’t want to be a leader.

Here are a few of the synonyms for “leader” from Thesaurus:

“Chief”

“Commander”

“Ruler”

“Boss”

“Chieftain”

“Controller”

“Superior”

Uh, thanks but no thanks.

Now, I’m not saying that we never need leaders. Or that if you adjusted the definition, maybe I could get on board with it. There are times that all of us who want to accomplish something with our lives or ideas will need to exhibit leadership. But I think we need a different mindset that will help us better solve the problems that lie ahead in the 21st Century.

We don’t need more leaders. We need more designers.

Leader Vs. Designer Mindset

“Your thoughts construct patterns like scaffolding in your mind. You are really etching chemical patterns. In most cases, people get stuck in those patterns, just like grooves in a record and they never get out of them.” – Steve Jobs

While this is not true of all leaders, I think there are some patterns and mindsets that have developed over time around the world “leader” that I think need to be challenged by the designer mindsets.

“Leader Mindset”

Hierarchical

No matter how many words we attach to leadership like “Servant Leadership” or “Team Leadership” leadership seems to always naturally gravitate toward hierarchy. Author of “Mapping Innovation” Greg Satell says that, “Today, we are undergoing a transformation every bit as dramatic, a shift from hierarchies, strategies and tactics to networks, platforms and movements.”

Certain

Americans love them some certainty. We like leaders who are bold, tell us the “right” answers and have a black and white view of solutions. But the world is becoming less and less predictable and certainty is becoming more and more of a pipe dream. Rationality has it’s limits and when it has reached them, design will be there to help by embracing both the arts and science, logic and emotion, critical thinking and intuition.

Extroverted

Most “good” leaders really can talk like there is no tomorrow. Give them a microphone and they will grace it with their words. Extroversion is so imbedded in what we expect of leaders Susan Cain’s book “Quiet” calls Harvard Business the “spiritual capital of extroversion.”

“Designer Mindset”

Collaborative

Education expert Parker Palmer says that the best way to learn is from a, “Subject Centered” paradigm. This is where the subject is in the middle and each person around the subject brings their expertise, ideas, and abilities to understanding it better. The “Leader” in this model plays the role of facilitator synthesizing the learnings from everyone in the group.

Collaboration is not just a buzzword, it is the future of work.

Embracing The Unknown

If we really want to do anything innovative, we must first detach ourselves from certainty. Certainty is the companion of stagnation. Design understands this well. This is why iteration is so important to good design. Our brilliant co-founder (and my wife) Hillary routinely calls this “try, fail, learn.” But before we can arrive at any sense of certainty, we must first wade into the unknown, be willing to fail and pivot quickly. Design and design thinking is a great paradigm for embracing the unknown.

Listening

Listening takes humility and the ego is not a huge fan of humility. The design mindset is focused on listening and empathizing with the people who they are building the solution with. Leaders make things FOR people. No matter if you are introverted or extroverted, designers listen and build solutions WITH their stakeholders.

So maybe you are like me and haven’t ever really connected with “Leadership.

Maybe instead of trying to be a “leader” you should consider looking to the designers mindsets and tools to guide how you solve challenges.

This was a freeing moment for me when I decided that I didn’t have to be a leader.

Maybe you don’t need to be a leader either.

Maybe you are a designer.

I think that’s a good thing, because guess what?

Leadership is dead.

Designers are taking over.

“The future belongs to a very different kind of person with a very different kind of mind—creators and empathizers, pattern recognizers, and meaning makers.”

― Daniel H. Pink, A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future


  • Kris Benevento

    Love, Love, Love this article Paul. Thanks for sharing. I work in a bureaucratic institution where the ego and hierarchy rule and it won’t be changing overnight. My Gallup Strengths Finder has me pegged in Connectedness, Relator, Ideation, Responsibility, Individualization and Maximizer. No wonder this resonates with me.

    • Jason DeMeo

      Kris you are a natural designer! 🙂

      I find your statement all too common. This is why I think we should consider looking to a new framework.

  • Paul DeSmet

    To say leadership is dead and right brainers will rule the future is absolutely misguided. You need left and right brainers to balance so you get the best result. You need leadership at all levels to get the best result. No leadership means no direction, no path. True leaders understand patterns, empathize, use intuition, and make meaning however they use analytical information to create those patterns. Failing to do so ends in chaos.

    • Jason DeMeo

      Notice how I didn’t say that right brainers will rule the future. Design to me, and to many others, is the intersection of the left and the right brain (if you still think that these are good ways of categorizing the brain). Design is the crossover of art and science, analytic and intuitive, logical and emotional. So I guess we agree on some of it!

  • Edison Bynoe

    I believe the writer is being hyperbolic to make his point. Depending on how you define leadership, it includes all that the article entails. Leadership must evolve based on the context. The world is in flux and leaders will have to be dynamic change agents.

    • Paul DeSmet

      If you are hyperbolic and distort reality that isn’t doing the reader any favors.

      • Jason DeMeo

        To you think that these synonyms are hyperbolic? My point is that this type of thinking/leadership has got us into a whole heck of a lot more problems than solutions.

        “Chief”

        “Commander”

        “Ruler”

        “Boss”

        “Chieftain”

        “Controller”

        “Superior”

    • Jason DeMeo

      Hey Edison! I agree with you the article was supposed to be provocative rather than prescriptive. I do think that an overemphasis on “leadership” in our culture has led to some of the dark side of it coming out. We have a ton of problems in our world right now and I actually think that design as a framework is better lens than traditional “leadership.” Thanks for engaging!

  • crawford765375

    So many design educators are have more interest to know more information about this and i think you write so well in here. I hope client found the best design from here.

  • Great article Jason… and so apropos to the religion of Christianity don’t you think? Like Paul Sohn I had a transformative God experience when I was 28. Seven months after I gave my life to the service of Jesus Christ I had a Heaven experience, in which I conversed with angels, and my religious life was changed into a spiritual life forever. Then, just a few months after that, when I was seriously considering going to divinity school to become a Pastoral leader, God spoke to me, telling me that I was not to learn about the things of the Spirit from other men, but from God. And I began to see scriptures I had never seen before, like John 6:45, in which Jesus quotes a prophet, saying, “And they shall be taught by God”.

    Under the guidance of the Holy Spirit I began my journey of learning to listen, I mean REALLY listen, and that led to reading all those old testament scriptures (and a few NT ones too) about the importance of meditation. But meditating was something I had given up when I became a Christian, because I was using an Eastern religious method. I searched but could find nothing that satisfied me concerning Christian meditation, so I prayed to God for guidance, for the best God approved, Christ-centered method of meditation. Ten years later, I was homeless and ready to hear God’s answer, which I had prayed for, almost on a daily basis.

    Now, having practiced this Christ centered method of meditation daily for 33 years I have become a firm believer in Sir Isaac Newton’s words, “Truth is the offspring of silence and unbroken meditation”. The deep spiritual insights God has shared with me are reason enough to promote its daily practice among all believers, but I’ve also discovered that it is my most important and precious tool for everyday problem solving. Furthermore, I’ve discovered that the revelational Spirit-Word knowledge I’ve tapped into, is vitally important to a thorough and balanced education. This indicates nothing less than a paradigm shift in our thinking, as Christians, about our education methods. As Christians we should be combining our God given Reason (sense-based), with God’s Revelation (Spirit-based and beyond our 5 senses) if we want to understand and integrate the things of the spirit (and not just “Serve the copy and shadow of heavenly things” – Hebrews 8:5 – as religion does).

    Let me give you just one example from my meditations, one that builds upon your own position, that its time to move away from the limitations of a hierarchical, ego-driven, ruler type model of leadership and adopt a designer model that’s built upon collaboration, listening and embracing the unknown.

    The Apostle Paul’s position on leadership was definitely the hierarchical, ruler model. Paul said, “Obey those who rule over you, and be submissive, for they watch out for your souls, as those who must give account.” (Hebrews 13:17).

    Pastors throughout my 44 years as a born-again believer have ALWAYS quoted that scripture as God’s word and have never entertained the possibility that this could be Paul’s opinion and wrong.

    But listen to the words of Jesus, which are diametrically opposed to Paul’s words. Jesus was responding to two disciples arguing over who would rule with Him. And Jesus answered by promoting the designer model of leadership you’ve outlined: “You know that those who are considered rulers over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. Yet it shall not be so among you; but whoever desires to become great among you shall be your servant. And whoever of you desires to be first shall be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:42-45).

    What God has taught me over the years is that Christianity is man’s religion and it is built upon Paul’s model, not Christ’s. This is how it was possible for so many so-called men of God, both Catholic and Protestant, to disobey Christ’s call to “Love your enemies” and instead to hang them, drown them, torture them or burn them at the stake!

    The two concepts I outlined above, “Taught by God” and “Man Doesn’t Rule”, are two of the nine Spirit-centered principles I’ve identified that were taught by Jesus but are avoided, twisted or just not taught by the religion of Christianity. I call them, “Christ’s 9 Principles of Spiritual Independence, Equality and Individuall Empowerment” and you can read more about them in my new book, “Make Christianity Great Again” (https://amazon.com/author/leroygrey).