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IDEO Stories

To be a great leader, rethink your default behaviors

Lessons learned from my year working with IDEO’s CEO Tim Brown

1. Act with humility.

The confident, assertive, self-important leader is a classic archetype. What if humility was a hallmark of leadership?

I traveled from Connecticut to Boston to interview with Tim. After the interview, he asked if I knew how to get home. I explained that I’d taken a cab to the office from the train station, but was planning to take the subway back. Instead of giving me directions, Tim replied, “I’ll walk you there!” Surely, I thought, the CEO of IDEO must have something more important to do. But before I could protest, he’d grabbed his jacket and hit the elevator button.

Our office supplies exhibit humility by not taking themselves too seriously.

2. Trust the intuition of others.

Leaders are given leeway to make gut decisions, but the rest of us are expected to make rational, often data-driven, choices. What if leaders empowered employees to trust their own intuition?

While helping Tim prepare a talk, I had a nagging feeling of doubt. We were up against a deadline — the slides needed to be designed and Tim needed time to memorize the talk. But something didn’t feel right. After much hesitation, I emailed Tim explaining that I wanted to make some big changes. He sent me a simple reply:

3. Encourage half-baked ideas.

Most employees, especially new hires, would never consider bringing anything but a polished presentation to a CEO. What if the opposite was true?

I worked directly with Tim on an ambiguous project. I had far more questions than answers. We met frequently one-on-one, so if one of us wasn’t talking, well, no one was talking. Really quickly, I got comfortable sharing ideas way before I was ready. Sometimes I couldn’t believe what came out of my mouth, but Tim never flinched. He built on my half-baked ideas, and shared his own.

Coming up with half-baked ideas on the train from San Francisco to Palo Alto.

4. Inspire, don’t instruct

We usually think of strategy as careful planning to achieve a particular goal. What if strategy didn’t involve a detailed plan?

Even though I worked with Tim on a strategic project, we didn’t set out to draw a clear roadmap. Instead, we painted a picture of a future state — a vision, but not a prescriptive solution. We focused on why, not how. Then we left it up to individuals and teams at IDEO to bring the ideas to life in creative ways — exactly what we’re best at doing.

Our inspiration wall at IDEO SF, where designers inspire each other.

5. Model behaviors

At many organizations, leaders act differently than everyone else. What if leaders modeled employee behaviors?

We visited our New York studio during the “First Annual Cooler Classic,” a new tradition that involves racing a refurbished motorized cooler around the office. When Tim walked in, I noticed people exchanging looks. Everyone wondered, “Would he race?” It turns out Tim doesn’t just talk about the importance of play, he makes time for it. Of course he would race. He even beat my time!

Tim racing in the First Annual Cooler Classic in New York.



"It doesn't occur to most people that everything is designed" - Bill Moggridge

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