A successful UX leader is a creative leader
Leading with creativity no matter your tenure, job title or craft.
Last year, I was applying for a senior management position when something worrying hit me: I forgot my purpose.
To remember it again, I turned to Simon Sinek, a leadership expert and author of Start with Why. I identified my values and purpose with his Golden Circles method and realised that to effectively lead a team of over 30 UX writers, I needed to articulate my “why”.
“We all know what we do, many of us know how we do it, but very few of us know why. And it’s those of us who know our ‘why’ who can become successful leaders.” — Simon Sinek
My “why” is to help people take risks, believe in themselves and realize their full potential. And I achieve this through creative leadership.
What is creative leadership?
Leaders aren’t necessarily the people with the highest job titles, salaries or the most experience in the room. They take charge in a group and encourage others to come along. Creative leaders do the same, but with some crucial differences.
Creative leaders don’t just develop novel ideas or approaches — they propel change forward. They focus on changing systems and creating a culture that supports and values creative thinking, problem-solving, collaboration and feedback. They are role models who encourage those around them to think differently. They dare to push limits and challenge the status quo.
Here’s what I’ve learned are the most effective practices of creative leaders, as adapted from Characteristics of the Creative Leader by John Maeda and Rebecca J. Bermont.
How to be a creative leader
Traditional leaders are literal. Creative leaders are storytellers.
Stories help us remember and gain trust. When we tell people anecdotes of our successes, failures or learnings, they can understand and connect with us, resulting in better relationships. When we use stories to communicate, they become more memorable than the same information on its own.
As UX professionals, we constantly practice storytelling, from discovery to implementation to iteration. But to translate this into leadership, you must:
- Know your audience
The more you understand your audience, the easier it is to adapt your story to resonate with them. For example, a stakeholder or client will have a different level of knowledge than a team member.
- Know your purpose
Be clear about why you are speaking to this audience and what you want to achieve by telling your story. Tell the right story at the right time to make it clear, engaging and inspiring to your audience.
- Connect with people
Think about how you want your audience to feel while listening to your story. Use the five senses (touch, smell, taste, sight and feel) and add rhythm and tone to build deeper connections.
Delivery is key. Be prepared to be most effective.
Traditional leaders avoid risks. Creative leaders take them.
Recently, I had an opening for a Senior position. Someone had moved into a new role, and I needed a collaborative writer to fill their shoes and continue to innovate. I was sure of the requirements, but the applicant pool was small and didn’t have the right level of seniority. I found myself in a pickle: I could play the waiting game until I found the perfect candidate, but would I ever?
Rather than wait, I looked critically at the talent and business priorities, made some shifts and placed an offer to a junior applicant. Had I been a traditional leader, I may have waited until I found the perfect candidate. Instead, I was creative and took a risk hoping to be right.
This individual is excelling today thanks to a strong direct manager, a stable product space and a community of peers. But remember, this isn’t throwing spaghetti at the wall and hoping it sticks — it’s being intentional and thoughtful in your decisions and then taking a risk.
It’s important to recognize that often in these pivotal moments, you are the expert. When you’re not, seek guidance from others and always take a calculated risk, reflecting on the outcome and impact of your decision.
Traditional leaders avoid mistakes. Creative leaders love to learn from them.
At Booking.com, we develop and test hypotheses, and when things don’t go as expected, we learn from our mistakes. As in UX, mistakes happen in leadership too. Being able to learn from them is critical.
Early in my management career, I had an under performer in my team. I avoided giving difficult feedback when reviewing performance to prevent conflict or hurt feelings. This was a mistake.
I acted as a traditional leader rather than a creative one. Had I addressed the topic bravely and asked for help from HR and my manager, I might have avoided some of the challenges I created later.
We can never turn back time, but we can reflect and learn from our mistakes rather than consider them failures. Today, when I see similar challenges in my team, I can ask the right questions to address the underperformance head-on and move forward to identify the best solution for the individual, the team and the business.
Traditional leaders take on limited feedback. Creative leaders are open to unlimited critique.
Humans don’t like critique. Yet, as a rising leader, it’s challenging to trust our expertise or know the right questions to ask — that’s where feedback comes in.
As UX professionals, we are better versed in giving and receiving feedback than many. Not only do we have highly critiqued professions, where our words and designs are on display for everyone to judge openly, but feedback is a fundamental part of our product development process. We use rituals, like UX critiques, to improve our products for users before we ship them.
In the same vein, developmental critique results in better leadership. Here’s how to be open to critique as a creative leader:
- Ask for feedback early and often
It’s essential that everyone — from stakeholders to direct reports or team members — has the opportunity to and is encouraged to voice their opinion. This helps leaders see the big picture, understand the impact of their actions and think more creatively.
- Listen to understand and ask questions
Listening is key to receiving feedback. To actively listen, face the speaker, establish eye contact, notice non-verbal cues, don’t interrupt and listen without judgment. Do your best to stay focused and resist planning what you will say in response. Ask open questions and take your time to respond.
- Know it’s not personal
Feedback is about behaviour, not about you. If it comes across as personal, ask questions to get to the root cause of the problem. Have follow-up chats as needed.
- Reflect and make real change
Feedback should drive action. That’s not to say that all feedback you receive will be actionable, but you should invest energy in reflection to understand when and how to change. This is where growth happens.
- Give thanks
Giving difficult feedback can be just as challenging as receiving it. Always be thankful and demonstrate kindness on either end.
Traditional leaders are concerned with being right. Creative leaders are real.
When I stepped into management, it was the first time I thought of myself as a leader in the workplace. Yet I was nervous about losing myself and conforming to styles and practices I’d come to hate. How could I stay real in this new and unfamiliar environment?
Anyone can become a creative leader, but no one can lead like you. I had to remind myself of my unique skills, what excited me about management and what led me to UX in the first place. I needed to remember my “why”.
Now, as I manage managers and other leaders across the business, I see many of them have the same concerns when they face new challenges, scopes or stakeholders. I’ve found that honing on their authentic leadership styles rather than conforming to the styles of those around them is the most thoughtful and effective way to lead. To progress as a community of leaders, we need to be our authentic selves. It’s unique perspectives, backgrounds and skills that make us stronger.
Simon Sinek said, “We follow those who lead not because we have to, but because we want to”. We all have the potential to be creative leaders, whether we are in a position of leadership or not.
To start thinking like a creative leader, identify your “why,” take risks, learn from your mistakes, ask for feedback and be real. Then, start challenging the status quo and encouraging those around you to do the same. It’s that simple.
Big thanks to Chris Cameron and Graham Cookson for the edits.