Building Communities That Can Innovate

Leading From Behind

Stephen Bau
Jan 22, 2018 · 3 min read
The ideation process as creative collaboration. Image from Unsplash by rawpixel.com.

My career as a designer is a study in imposter syndrome. I decided fairly early in life that art was my calling. I have been drawing for as long as I can remember, but I remember never feeling satisfied with what I had created even at an early age. That perfectionism has never really left me.

Comparison is the thief of joy, it has been said.

I chose to study at a small local college. In 1986, the Kwantlen College Graphic Design Program was a two-year program that was housed in an industrial area of Surrey, BC, a school shared by the journalism and auto mechanics departments.

After two years of practical instruction and practice in the basic knowledge and skills of graphic design, we had learned about felt pen comps, Letraset, photo typesetting, PMTs, mechanical paste up, process cameras, and film negatives. Within six months of finding my first job at a design studio in Vancouver, we were introduced to Apple Macintosh computers. Everything I had learned had become obsolete, although the skills and knowledge were valuable experiences that helped me adapt quickly and recognize the advantages and disadvantages of the changes.

Ever since, I have been teaching myself the latest technologies in an attempt to keep ahead of the curve, as communications technologies are always in an ongoing process of evolution. The perennial challenge is to adapt or perish.

Over the years, I have learned so many things that I consider myself to be a jack of all trades, master of none. I decided early on that I should learn as much as I could, to be as useful as possible. My experience includes design for video, advertising media, print, and web.

After almost 30 years of work as a designer, I have been offered the opportunity to pass on what I know to the next generation.

The work and nature of design has changed considerably over the span of my career. Business has recognized design as a core means of creating value and transforming products, systems and experiences. Yet there continues to be many challenges to the integration of design into the core competencies of organizations.

Corporate leadership and the hierarchies on which they depend are typically hostile to the creative process by their very nature. It is clear that these older industrial models of business need to be deconstructed and rebuilt to make the most of the advantages of distributed networks, open data systems, and collaborative creative processes.

What I have learned about leadership is that one can lead without necessarily being granted a position of leadership within an organizational hierarchy. Design is by definition a role of influence. We make the path by walking, and we are often blazing trails where few have gone before. We find our inspiration from those who learned how to lead from behind.

We improvise, using our powers of observation to realize the difference between what is and what could be, and adapting our experience to new situations to find ways to bridge the gap between vision and reality.

Rather than fight the existing reality, we build new models that make the old models obsolete, as Buckminster Fuller defined our role as change agents.

That is how we lead with design.

Leading with Design

One’s position in an organization does not necessarily determine your opportunities to lead. We each have a part in designing the world around us.

Stephen Bau

Written by

Designer, writer, educator, social architect, founder, Builders Collective, Leading with Design. https://stephenbau.com

Leading with Design

One’s position in an organization does not necessarily determine your opportunities to lead. We each have a part in designing the world around us.

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