The Best Leadership Style for Design Teams

What Is Leadership, Anyway?

Have you ever worked under (or above) someone who motivated you to work so well that you felt like you were equals, as part of a team dynamic? That person is a transformational leader.

Transformational Leadership is a style of leadership that functions through active inspiration and motivation from a leader to her team members. Emphasis on the active. The term transformational comes from the fact that through this active inspiration, group members transform and embody change in their own ways towards the desired group-goal.

There are many leadership styles that are embodied by many leaders, but few are successful in the ways that Transformational Leadership is, and here’s why.

Underlying Theories

The funny thing about Transformational Leadership, interestingly enough, is that it is simple to employ yet complex to understand and maintain sustainably. In essence, there are four theories that underpin it and keep the fires stoked, so to speak. They are known as The Four I’s, developed by Bernard A. Bass in 1985, based on the conceptual development of James V. Downton in 1973. They are, in no particular order:

  • Idealised Influence (II)
  • Intellectual Stimulation (IS)
  • Inspirational Motivation (IM)
  • Individualised Consideration (IC)

Idealised Influence (II) refers to the example the leader sets for the rest of the group, which usually takes the form of respect and reliance on the vision the leader sets out for the team.

Intellectual Stimulation (IS) refers to how the leader promotes an environment that encourages innovation and unique problem-solving skills among team members. There is usually a strong encouragement to go against the grain and to find new ways (or re-examine old ones) of how to look for solutions to a particular problem.

Inspirational Motivation (IM) refers to the act of instilling motivation in team members and raising group-morale through techniques that inspire. Usually this is done through the example set by the leader him(her)self. Through the strong communication of high team-expectations, group members are motivated to work harder in the right direction; and alongside the other underlying theories of this style, this is done not in an overpowering manner, but more of an empowering one.

Individualised Consideration (IC) is the theory that through the active promotion of individual differences (strengths and weaknesses together) within the team, members are encouraged to be diverse and to use that to their advantage. It is also important within this theory to listen attentively to team members’ concerns and needs to make sure that all members feel considered effectively within the team dynamic.

While these might seem complex on the offset, the essence is that a Transformational Leader is someone who leads through authenticity (buzzword or not) and focuses on the team dynamic that everyone plays their own particular role in. It’s about empowerment, not a dictatorship.

How to Apply This Leadership Style to Design Teams

Being in the design industry — both as a member of a medium-sized team of creators, and as a tertiary-level educator — I’m fascinated by how this can be applied in Design teams. It’s also interesting to see how this has been applied in team dynamics I have been a part of in the past, and why how those dynamics may or may not have succeeded by these particular theories.

Funnily enough, Transformational Leadership is applied in Design teams as it is applied in most team dynamics: the leader identifies and articulates a vision, and the team implements an appropriate model for pursuing that vision.

There is also a large encouragement to accept group goals and establish high-performance expectations while considering the individualised strengths and weaknesses in team members. This is arguably the greatest challenge within Design teams as most are comprised of members who are purposefully unique and bring their own skills and perspectives to the table.

Following from this, it is also extremely important within Design teams to promote intellectual stimulation for individual skills development. This is how designers individually contribute to the success of the entire team and move everyone towards the vision.

Design teams are, by necessity, uniquely comprised, which makes Transformational Leadership an incredibly effective method of leadership.

The Benefits and Drawbacks

What makes this leadership style so effective within team dynamics is because it ensures the treatment of team members as individuals with unique skills and motivations. This, however, does come with some drawbacks.

Some of the Pros of Transformational Leadership include being united in a common vision, creating and managing effective change, keeping environments open and ethical promoting morale through high communication and motivation, and giving team members individual freedoms to approach their tasks.

In contrast, some of the Cons include it being too large-picture-focused (the overall vision), it can easily lead to burnout, it can be risky and disruptive and it sometimes facilitates team-abuse if the wrong vision is aimed for, and to top it off, it requires a constant feedback loop to be successful.

While the benefits of Transformational Leadership are arguably huge, it is very easy for the drawbacks to take centre-stage. This means it is vital for the leader to embody the correct vision, populate an effective team and to maintain very high communication so that the scale of concerns and challenges are mitigated and can be swiftly dealt with.

It’s difficult, but not impossible.

Practical Strategies for Design Teams

The practical strategies for implementing this leadership style within Design teams lie in the fundamental theories that underpin the style itself. Follow those, and you’re golden.

Leaders must embody and promote a vision that is worthwhile for team members to embody themselves, otherwise, the sustainability of the team’s effectiveness will very quickly die out.

The leader must then make sure they comprise their team with members that bring their own skills and effective perspectives to the table that can all contribute cohesively to the project’s vision. Without team members that can work cohesively, challenges easily arise in the form of perspective clashes and work-flow complications.

Once work is underway, the most imperative strategy that the leader must employ is effective and constant communication. This ensures challenges are dealt with as a team and are not ‘hidden’ until they become unmanageable, and so team members know their concerns and feelings are considered as important as the vision itself with a ‘no man left behind’ mentality.

Cook Did It, So Can You

Apple has been one of the Information Technology Product giants for many years, and has recently been named as the most valuable publicly listed company in the world. This was not one single effort, though, and has been a steady growth achieved through the effective Transformational Leadership of Tim Cook following the late Steve Jobs.

While Jobs lead his company through a micromanaging style, Cook has taken it to new heights due to his Idealised Influence (II). This has earned him high respect within the company as he has been an incredible role model for the teams he leads. The success of products such as the Apple Watch, Apple Pay, and the recent iPhone and iPad Pro models demonstrate the design and business successes of his leadership.

One particular experience warranted him incredible respect within the Information Technology and consumer markets: his battle for privacy and product security. After the terrible events of December 2015 when two attackers killed 14 people in San Bernardino, California, the FBI demanded that Apple disable the security features of one of the attacker’s iPhones to grant them access to aid in their prosecution. Tim Cook refused.

His defence of this refusal was that it was an act of defence of the civil liberties and the trust that consumers put into the products that Apple sells them. And in recent attempts by the FBI, for similar reasons, a refusal towards law enforcement simultaneously means a refusal to everyone, which is why Apple will not comply with such requests.

This refusal has gained Cook immense respect from IT workers and consumers alike, which in turn makes consumers more likely to purchase from Apple in the future. It also shows his consideration of the trust that his employees place in him as a leader, making him an exemplary role model and an effective leader within the tech community.

Through Tim Cook’s motivation to refuse privacy issues and the influence he has gained from his employees and customers alike — alongside his individual consideration towards the skills of his design teams — he is arguably a very effective Transformational Leader who continues to lead the B2C Information Technology market.

Tim Cook is only one example, of many. Transformational Leadership has been commonplace in team dynamics for decades, so much so that we barely notice it when we’re a part of it. That’s how effective it is. I count myself fortunate to be able to work like this in my own career.

I don’t work for a team, I work with a team. That’s the fundamental difference between design teams that succeed and those that don’t. It’s subtle, but monumental.

Sources Consulted

Bass, B.M.; & Avolio, B. (1994). Improving Organizational Effectiveness Through Transformational Leadership. Sage.

Holpuch, A. (2016, February 22). Tim Cook says Apple’s refusal to unlock iPhone for FBI is a ‘civil liberties’ issue. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2016/feb/22/tim-cook-apple-refusal-unlock-iphone-fbi-civil-liberties

Lea, S. (2020, July 29). Four I’s of Transformational Leadership. Business Balls. https://www.businessballs.com/leadership-styles/four-is-of-transformational-leadership/

Mind Tools. (n.d.). Transformational Leadership. https://www.mindtools.com/pages/article/transformational-leadership.htm

Pawar, B. S. (Ed.). (2004). Transformational leadership research : Issues and implications. ProQuest Ebook Central https://search.proquest.com/

Perry, S. (2016). Tim Cook, a Case Study on the Effects of Transformational Leadership on Privacy and IT Security. Sans Institute. https://www.sans.edu/media/Tim-Cook-Transformational-Leadership-Essay-Final.pdf

Podsakoff, P. M., MacKenzie, S. B., Moorman, R. H., & Fetter, R. (1990). Transformational leader behaviors and their effects on followers’ trust in leader, satisfaction, and organizational citizenship behaviors. The Leadership Quarterly, 1, 107–142. https://doi.org/10.1016/1048-9843(90)90009-7

Reuters. (2020, August 1). Apple tops Saudi Aramco as most valuable publicly listed co. The Economic Times. https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/markets/stocks/news/apple-briefly-overtakes-saudi-aramco-to-become-the-worlds-largest-company/articleshow/77288873.cms

Stankiewicz, K. (2020, January 16). Slippery slope: Online privacy activist defends Apple’s refusal to unlock iPhones for the FBI. CNBC. https://www.cnbc.com/2020/01/16/roger-mcnamee-defends-apple-refusal-to-unlock-iphones-for-doj.html#:~:text=Apple is right to refuse,said the online privacy activist

Thompson, J. (2019, May 13). Advantages and Disadvantages of Transformational Leadership. Chron. https://smallbusiness.chron.com/advantages-disadvantages-transformational-leadership-20979.html

White, S.K. (2018, February 21). What is transformational leadership? A model for motivating innovation. CIO. https://www.cio.com/article/3257184/what-is-transformational-leadership-a-model-for-motivating-innovation.html

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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.