Competent Leadership

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Part Two

If you’re here for part two (the final part), then you’ll likely have already read part one of this mini-series. If you haven’t yet, I’d give that a check so you’re up to speed and some context is more easily understood. For a small recap, though, let me give you the gist of why I’m sharing this with you.

Recently, my Honours group was tasked with an essay into leadership in Design; more notably with a focus on effective management styles and characteristics. While leadership itself has an elusive definition, ironically, because it is different to different people, this hasn’t posed too much of a challenge in the world of business leadership. Leaders have their own styles (even while some may be similar than others) and people work with them for their own reasons — which can also be fairly elusive.

We might not need to agree on one singular definition, however helpful it may be, though. As long as those relying on leadership positions understand the interpersonal relationships that make them function effectively, different leadership styles can be useful.

The essay I wrote, which will soon be available to read on my website in its entirety, focused on leadership styles and characteristics regarding leadership in general, as well as a slight leniency towards Design leaders with a results-driven approach to management. Before sharing the full essay, however, I wanted to flesh out some of the concepts I wrote about leading up to my main takeaways with you first. In part one, I wrote about Autonomy and Freedom, along with Guidance and Trust, and why I believe these are important for the success of any team that needs to be led.

At the same time, I feel this information doesn’t need to be limited to leaders of groups and can be applied to oneself in order to better govern and guide your own development and profession. This is why I’m sharing this with you. I don’t want information that I find useful serve only myself if I can help it. We’re all here to learn and grow, which is why (I’m assuming) you’re reading this right now. So, let’s learn together.

As I’ve said already, this is be the second of two parts. I hope you find it useful in some capacity. I do need to note, however, that this section is built and guided by the research done by Tim A. Flanagan and John S. Lybarger in their book, Leading Forward : Successful Public Leadership Amidst Complexity, Chaos and Change. This article is merely a fraction of what can be gathered from their work; I just believe that this information is wonderfully condensed enough for general use, which has proven useful to me already. And I hope that usefulness transfers to you. This article has also been inspired by some of my own research into Transformational Leadership, which is useful if you work in Design teams, along with a little anecdotal insight at the end. Take it or leave it, but it’s there for you.

Let’s Get Meta

There are arguably many characteristics that define leadership and pave the way for the successful management and guidance of team members, which is what makes leadership such a challenging concept to pin down. Some clear examples include, but are not limited to:

  • Authenticity
  • Compassion
  • Locus of control and change
  • Self-efficacy
  • Comfort in ambiguity and uncertainty
  • Personal accountability
  • Communication (and listening)
  • Ethical consideration
  • Emotional maturity, and
  • Resilience

While these are characteristics that many people have, it is a unique combination that helps us understand a more comprehensive definition of an effective and respectable leader. It is also difficult to find leaders who embody every trait listed, so we can instead rely on a Meta-Competencies Model of four specific qualities:

  1. Agile Learning Capability
  2. Adept with Ambiguity
  3. Adroit at Thinking Strategically, and
  4. Ambitious Drive to Execute

Within each of these meta-competencies, there are multiple components and subcomponents that contribute to their applicability, but I’ll sum it up for you so you can understand it at surface-value.

Agile Learning Ability

With an Agile Learning Ability, there is a large focus on a passion for continually learning and acquiring new and competitive skills, on seeking fresh perspectives and actively searching for new opportunities, and creating an environment of learning and growth.

Adept with Ambiguity

With being Adept with Ambiguity, there is a large focus on the ability to adapt to continuously changing environments and seeing seizable opportunities within chaos (an environment or circumstance that is seemingly unmanageable and confusing). It’s being resilient enough to bounce back from failures and setbacks, and facing uncertainty with a combination of calmness, confidence, and enthusiasm.

Adroit at Thinking Strategically

Being Adroit at Thinking Strategically enables a skilful judgement of demands for competing information and opportunities — and incomplete information — while simultaneously knowing when to let go of a particular trajectory (locus of control). There is also a focus on thinking beyond what is visible and seeing the potential in opportunities while being able to link what can be achieved in the future using what is available in the present. As is a large part of Transformational Leadership, a strong ability to inspire a vision of the future plays a considerable role in strategic thinking.

Ambitious Drive to Execute

And finally, with an Ambitious Drive to Execute, one practices responsible risk-taking and an embracement of the vision in an actionable capacity. Along with this, being able to influence others in an empowering way allows a leader to lead by example and helps to foster relationships with team members that contribute to the success of both the team and the individual. When a leader can embrace responsible risk-taking and can inspire others by leading by example, this often results in team members learning to embrace responsible risk-taking themselves; which arguably contributes to their own personal development and career potential.

We Don’t Need More Leaders

It’s easy to look at generic traits like ambition, creativity, compassion and empathy etc. and think “oh that’s me,” but it’s far more difficult to effectively utilise a combination of desirable traits towards a goal or vision. If everyone could do it, we’d have far more leaders out there. That being said, I don’t think we need more leaders. Rather, I think we need people who know how to be led when they need to be.

There’s nothing wrong with being led, and maybe that perception is part of the problem. Sheep-and-shepherd are too black-and-white; the real world is more complicated than that. You can aim for the top, and by all means, do so, but not everyone gets there. And that’s okay.

You don’t have to be the leader of a team or a group in order to be successful or competent at what you do. You also don’t have to lead anyone in order to live a happy life. You do, however, need to be able to lead yourself. You owe yourself that. So if you’re going to take anything from this mini-series, it should be this:

If you’re going to live a happy and successful life (whatever that is to you), learn to lead. But you cannot learn to lead others until you can learn to lead yourself. Be adept with your own ambiguity, be vicious in your drive to learn new things, think strategically for yourself and what you want, and be ambitious with your own dreams.

No one follows a leader effectively when they cannot lead themselves. Start with yourself and the rest will come naturally.


April, K., Peters, K., Locke, K., & Mlambo, C. (2010). Ethics and leadership: enablers and stumbling blocks. Journal of Public Affairs, 10, pp. 152–172.

Flanagan, T. A., & Lybarger, J. S. (2014). Leading forward : Successful public leadership amidst complexity, chaos and change (with professional content). ProQuest Ebook Central



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Zachary Styles

Zachary Styles

Full-time designer, illustrator and lettering artist. Part time lecturer. Part time student. Experiencing the world through words, both written and drawn.