To be a great leader, rethink your default behaviors

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


I joined IDEO straight from business school. Some differences were immediately obvious, even a bit cliché. Sharpies, not spreadsheets. Post-Its, not PowerPoints. Blue jeans, not blazers. A more subtle difference between IDEO and the traditional business world revealed itself over time: how leaders lead.

I was lucky to spend my first year at IDEO working closely with Tim Brown, our CEO. I consistently found myself surprised by Tim’s default behaviors — the way he acts more often than not. They flip conventional ideas about management and leadership — the kind I learned in the corporate world and in MBA classrooms — on their head.

Here are five of Tim’s default behaviors you might consider adopting.


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.

Tim has no recollection of this happening, but I remember it well. I spent three hours in the office that day, but I learned the most about Tim in that one moment. The few minutes it took him to walk me to the subway told me volumes about how he treats his colleagues, and about the kind of mentor he would be.

When it comes to leadership, humility is often perceived as weakness. That couldn’t be further from the truth. There are many ways to express humility — you might welcome feedback, admit mistakes, or simply treat others as equals. Your employees will view those as signs of strength, not weakness.

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:

It’s only twenty-four words, but this is the most meaningful work e-mail I’ve ever received. Not only did Tim give me confidence to trust myself, he let me know that after months of working together, he trusted my intuition.

You may trust your own intuition, but what about the intuition of others? Exhibiting that kind of trust will have ripple effects on the confidence and skill of your employees. This is true to such a great degree at IDEO that even using the word employee in that sentence doesn’t feel right. As a result of the trust placed in me, I rarely felt like I was working for Tim, but with him.


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.

Often, we think of leaders as either having the right answers or expecting them. We feel uncomfortable sharing ideas before they’re researched, analyzed, and vetted. Working with Tim, I felt permission to hang on to ideas loosely. He didn’t have all the answers, and he didn’t expect me to either. Eventually, we came up with good ideas together; it was even hard to tell whose idea was whose.

It’s hard to iterate on something that feels finished. (This is why we use Post-Its at IDEO: they’re easy to scribble on and just as easy to throw away.) Creating an environment where your employees — at all levels — feel comfortable sharing half-baked ideas is one way to make ideas better, faster.

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.

Tim genuinely believes that the next great idea at IDEO could come from anyone, whether they’ve been at IDEO for 30 years or 30 days. His goal is to inspire our designers: to point in a direction, provide autonomy, spark creativity, and course correct when necessary.

Even if you’re not leading a company of wildly creative people, there’s wisdom in identifying a destination without providing the map. It creates room for others to take ownership of both the route and the results.

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!

At IDEO, our ability to be creative hinges on our willingness to feel silly in front of one another. Part of our culture is to “ask for forgiveness, not permission.” The truth is, permission is very important at IDEO, but in a subtle way. We feel permission to act certain ways not because they are written down anywhere, but because our leaders model those behaviors.

You may never ride a motorized cooler around your office, but whatever behaviors are important to how your organization operates or the kind of culture you want to create, make sure you are the first to model them.

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

There is one commonality across all five behaviors: empowering employees.

The role of leaders at IDEO isn’t to be in front with a flashlight, guiding the way. Instead, it’s to be on the sidelines with a clipboard, providing guidance, inspiration, and support. Leadership is a team sport.

Importantly, Tim doesn’t always exhibit these behaviors, and neither should you. Some situations call for a dose of over-confidence. Half-baked ideas eventually need to become fully-baked. Sometimes careful planning is needed. Some choices require rational decision-making. Some behaviors you won’t always be able to model.

One quality of leadership is knowing when and how to switch back and forth. That kind of wisdom builds with time and experience. An equally important question to ask yourself right now is, “Which behavior is your default?” Do you default to humility or pride? Skepticism or trust in the intuition of others? Half-baked or polished ideas? Inspiration or instruction? Dictating behaviors or modeling them?

In most companies, Tim’s style of leadership is the exception. Default behaviors are the opposite. What if more leaders made it a priority to:

1. Act with humility.

2. Trust the intuition of others.

3. Encourage half-baked ideas.

4. Inspire, don’t instruct.

5. Model behaviors.

I’ll end with one last piece of advice from Tim: odd-numbered lists are more pleasing and easier to remember.