How to be a leader and still be yourself

Albert Shum
Dec 7, 2018 · 3 min read

I was recently asked how an introverted designer can still be an effective leader — something that resonates with me when I think back on my own journey. As a young designer I had a million ideas but found it hard to communicate them. I’m Canadian by way of Hong Kong, and so language was my first barrier as a young creative. So I learned to write things down, listen, and give somewhat esoteric feedback to spark others imaginations. Throughout my career I’ve figured out how to be true to myself while navigating the complex intersection of business, tech, and design. It wasn’t always easy. To my fellow introverts, I want to share what I’ve learned and empower you to be your true self as a designer. I’m still learning, but here’s what I know so far:

Favor abductive reasoning

The workplace might seem like a good place to “shout out” the answer in a meeting. But that misses the synthesis phase that’s so important to design. As an introvert, and more broadly as a designer, your strength is to let it simmer. Introspection is an opportunity to bring order to randomness, spot the pattern and remove the noise. Here’s a great piece from Jon Kolko on the power of abductive thinking.

Keep a ritual

To avoid the randomization that can derail the introvert, be sure that every action has an equal and opposite reaction. Start every morning writing, sketching, meditating, before everything hits the fan. When someone springs something on you, chart out your priorities. When someone sparks an idea in you, write it down and follow up. Repeat until it’s second nature. This leads to constant visualizing that helps you focus, hear the important stuff, and stay grounded in habits.

Use visual thinking

It’s natural for designers to want to draw their ideas, which is also a convenient technique for the introvert. Too often I share my ideas from my mind’s eye, “speaking visually,” and sometimes it comes across as obtuse. Describing the converging lines of a solution isn’t helpful — you gotta pick up the pen and draw it. Sometimes it’s sloppy, but trust me, the spoken word is sloppier. Use your strength as a visual learner to teach others.

Respond, don’t react

This one is a little zen but it works. For designers, there’s often that moment in a design critique, a project review, a tense priority meeting, when you want to react by playing defense. The introverted leader knows it’s best to sit with those feelings and take the time to analyze before responding. A good leader has a sense of mindfulness that curbs inflammatory situations.

Present like an athlete

Sorry, introverts: being a leader requires public speaking. But there’s a way to approach it that keeps your mind off the fear. For me, I treat it like an exercise routine; like training for a marathon. Keep a training regiment on your own or with a friend. Then when it’s time to perform, focus on the moment and make it a physical challenge rather than a mental one — get to that next hill, that next turn, that last stretch. See the presentation as a journey and visualize the different mile markers and HEY, look at that, you’re already at the finish line!

Be thoughtful

Introspection is mindfulness, and being mindful is greatly appreciated. Being a good leader means to be a good listener, especially now when we don’t have much time for listening. Hear and understand people and follow up. It’s one thing to think quietly for yourself, it’s another to take the time and energy to share those thoughts later and help others with your insights.

What are your strengths as an introverted designer? Share in the comments or find me on Twitter.

Microsoft Design

Putting technology on a more human path, one design story at a time.

Albert Shum

Written by

CVP of Design at Microsoft. Leads a collaborative team creating the future of Windows computing. Views are my own.

Microsoft Design

Putting technology on a more human path, one design story at a time.

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