This is the second in a series of articles on the subject of design leadership, having been inspired to write about and share my experiences during my formative years as a design leader.
In this article I’m going to attempt to tackle the topic of robustness and resilience and why, as leaders, in any field, our psychological and emotional fortitude is something we need to recognise, acknowledge and learn to cope with.
Our emotional armour
Let’s face it, life at the top can be hard and there is an expectation that folks can and, in many cases, should be able to deal with the pressures and expectations that often come with a leadership role. But we have to learn to protect ourselves from these pressures and with that, support and strengthen our emotional integrity.
I like to think of the qualities of robustness and resilience as my emotional armour. Worn well, it shields me from a number of situations that might otherwise dent and impact both my confidence and self-esteem. Imposter’s syndrome never goes away and will start to slowly creep back after every knock, every stalled project, every missed deadline, every mishandled conversation.
Rewinding for a second, let’s look at the definitions of robustness and resilience.
Robustness is described as:
“The ability to withstand or overcome adverse conditions”.
Resilience is described as:
“The capability to recover quickly from difficulties”.
So, to continue with the armour metaphor, you might think of this as the toughness or durability or your armour, along with your ability to re-forge or reassemble over time, having likely shed pieces of it in act of battle.
The types of resilience
In many cases, people will refer to the notion of resilience, or someone who on the face of it demonstrates these qualities, as simply being “thick-skinned” or “tough”. You either are or you aren’t. A binary state. But, it’s far more nuanced than that and I’d argue that there are actually different categories or types of resilience, some of which I’ve personally managed to cope better with than others.
Political resilience is something very relevant for anyone in a leadership position. Whilst once shielded from some of the organisational politics, you’re now likely part of these conversations and in some cases a primary contributor. You’ll spend a lot of your time trying to persuade and influence others; advocating for the value of design, campaigning for resources, negotiating with your product and engineering counterparts.
Politics is hard. It’s often about credibility, having an outcome you can clearly articulate and establishing common value. However, there are likely to be many, many negotiation situations where you’ll need to be willing to concede or compromise. This can be tough, as every compromise can feel like a small defeat and serve to test your resilience as a leader.
You’ll start to bring into question your soft skills; communication style, ability to read a situation and empathise with others. Am I being too bullish? Am I being a pushover? Am I blinkered to other’s perspectives or bigger organisation challenges? Political resilience is something most of us haven’t had to deal with before, but is very real and apparent, particularly for design leaders in less mature organisations.
Interpersonal resilience speaks to our daily interactions with those report in to, those that report into us and other stakeholders we’re required to develop and maintain relationships with, in a professional capacity. People are complex and sometimes unpredictable. This can make it difficult for any leader, where, as we know, much of what we do in our roles is about the people.
But every difficult conversation can take its toll. We work hard to build trust and forge these relationships, particularly with those in our immediate teams. So, what happens when that is compromised? The wrong choice of words, personal circumstances, looming deadlines and poor communication habits can start to erode the relationships we’ve built.
Again, we start to question what more we could have done in these types of situations. Is that conversation one I should have avoided, avoided for now, or leaned into? Could I have employed more diplomacy and tact? Am I just a bad people person? These moments of doubt affect us deeply, some more than others.
As a leader, we have to become comfortable with putting down some of the tools of our craft. Our efforts likely focus on more on strategic initiatives, change management and cross-functional working. The shape of our work day-to-day fundamentally changes and with that so does the speed at which we, as leaders, see the results.
Where you once might have been directly involved in shipping lines of code, a UI change or some copy revisions, now it might be a week or even months before you see the impact of any larger, transformational efforts. The sense of inertia and lack of some more immediate gratification can be painful if left unchecked, disheartening and at worst demotivating.
As a result, we can start to question our value and worth. Am I adding value? Could I be spending my time more wisely? Can I confidently look myself in the mirror and say, ‘I did a good job today’? There is inevitably a long tail of fulfilment with much of the work we do as leaders and we have to be comfortable with operating on a different cadence of effort and reward.
The saying ‘we are often our own worst critics’ feels very relevant for leaders, particularly for those in the field of design, who often feel they have more to prove than their product or engineering peers. Whilst self-reflection is super important, it’s easy to be overly-critical and to beat ourselves up when we fail to meet our own high standards.
Our feelings and emotions can and do get the better of us. Whether that’s an overwhelming sense of pressure, loneliness, exclusion, frustration or some other emotional response to a situation. Sometimes these responses are well-founded and logical, but at other times our emotions are clouded, illogical and occasionally irrational.
Learning to cope with any emotional response is hard, whether rooted in logic or brought about by your own personal situations and circumstances. But a feeling is a feeling at the end of the day. Their involuntary, we can control them, but we can learn to recognise them and slowly start to compartmentalise the rational from the irrational.
Let you own inner voice be your friend, not your enemy and learn from your mistakes, but please don’t let them consume you.
Recognise your tolerance
Whilst resilience isn’t something that can be taught, we can learn to recognise the triggers and situations where resilience can help us cope and where necessary bounce back from difficult situations. But, like most physical objects, resilience has a breaking point. Apply enough tension and it will snap, your amour will fail, and you’ll expose yourselves to the emotional impact.
But, the more we expose ourselves to these situations, the more we learn to cope, reframe and look beyond what are often momentary bumps in our journeys to becoming better leaders. We learn from these experiences and they help to shape and colour future experiences, but our ability to manage our feelings and bounce back from what we perceive as a failure is a long, hard lesson.
We slowly become more battle-hardened and able to weather the types of knocks that would once have completely derailed our confidence and reset our esteem. But this takes time and is something that never entirely goes away. We just learn how to fall better or roll with the punches. As John Maeda once said on the subject of failure:
“Failure is easy, recovery is hard”.
So, we need to also learn to recognise our personal limits, when to seek support and when to pull the cord and ask for help. Whilst everyone is different in this respect, some have a higher tolerance than others (a different tensile strength if you will), everyone has a breaking point. Identify yours and seek support when you need it. Don’t go it alone, there’s always someone willing to listen.
If you, enjoyed this article please share with your networks and do take a look at my first post in this series ‘Design Leadership: On being your genuine self.’