Design Strategy Talks & Workshops

Building Thought Leadership Skills

Discover how combining thought leadership with strategic skills can enhance a designer’s ability to influence business decisions.

In a previous article, I stated that Thought Leadership is a crucial ability for designers to become effective strategists, which enables them to influence business decisions. In this piece, I will explain how combining thought leadership with other design and strategy skills can help individuals develop a comprehensive approach to leadership. This approach can help designers influence the strategic decisions that guide product vision, contributing to their ability to make a lasting impact in their respective fields.


  • From aligning passion, expertise, and credibility to crafting narratives that captivate, thought leaders shape the future by identifying trends and setting transformative directions. Through a strategic ripple effect, these ideas gain momentum, driving change that resonates not only within an immediate circle but across industries.
  • Beyond mere words, thought leaders wield the ability to captivate, conveying their innovative ideas with resonance. Such skills become the bedrock of credibility, recognition, and a devoted following, a trifecta that propels visionary concepts into action.
  • Effective thought leadership involves implementing ideas and managing challenges. Change management skills are crucial, especially when dealing with resistance. Thought leaders become catalysts for change by turning ideas into actions.
  • Developing thought leadership skills and emotional intelligence go hand in hand. By combining visionary ideas with practicality and integrating emotional intelligence into strategic leadership, we become influential thought leaders who can drive meaningful change. Traits like self-assurance, empathetic listening, and conflict resolution are crucial for genuine influence.
  • Having thought leadership skills means inspiring, communicating eloquently, and connecting with others emotionally. On the other hand, strategist skills provide the blueprint, structure, and analytical prowess necessary for practical implementation. Though these skills may seem different, they actually work together to create a synergy that transforms ideas into actions, aspirations into achievements, and leaders into change-makers.

Thought leadership is about going beyond just having ideas and being the driving force behind them. It challenges traditional leadership paradigms and creates trends rather than follows them.

Thought leaders stay informed and anticipate shifts in their industry, positioning themselves as guides for others navigating the changing landscape.They cultivate a community united under a shared vision, amplifying and scaling ideas through engagement, advocacy, and collaboration.

Embracing these specific thought leadership skills will empower designers and strategists to become influential thought leaders who can inspire change, drive innovation, and make a lasting impact in their respective industries or niches.

Key Skills for Aspiring Thought Leaders

In the realm of thought leadership, success is not solely a product of one’s ideas, but of the skills that amplify their impact. These skills form the bedrock upon which true influence is built. Aspiring thought leaders navigate the complexities of their industries armed with a toolkit of abilities that distinguish them from the rest. From the art of communication to the cultivation of emotional intelligence, these skills coalesce to transform vision into tangible change. Let’s explore the crucial skills that set aspiring thought leaders on the path to profound influence.

  • Mastering Effective Communication. Thought leaders possess the remarkable ability to communicate their ideas clearly and persuasively. Their words are not just informative; they’re inspirational. The capacity to convey complex concepts in a manner that resonates with diverse audiences is a hallmark of their influence. Effective communication bridges the gap between innovative insights and their practical application, inviting others to be part of the journey.
  • Innovative Thinking and Idea Generation. Central to thought leadership is the skill of thinking beyond the obvious. Innovators don’t merely accept the status quo; they challenge it. They see possibilities where others see constraints. Thought leaders embrace this skill, consistently generating ideas that shape the future and pioneering approaches that set trends rather than follow them.
  • Demonstrating Expertise and Credibility. Being a thought leader means going beyond asserting expertise; it’s about proving it. Thought leaders earn credibility through their work, consistently delivering results that align with their insights. This requires not only a deep understanding of their field but also the acumen to translate that knowledge into tangible outcomes.
  • Managing and Adapting to Change. In a rapidly evolving world, thought leaders are agile navigators. They thrive amidst change and uncertainty, adapting their strategies and insights to fit new contexts. This adaptability ensures that their influence remains relevant and dynamic, making them valuable voices in ever-changing industries.
  • Building a Supportive Network. Thought leadership is not a solitary pursuit. It’s about fostering a community of like-minded individuals who share a passion for change. Cultivating a network of supporters, collaborators, and advocates extends a thought leader’s reach and multiplies the impact of their ideas.
  • Cultivating Emotional Intelligence. Behind every strategic decision, there’s a foundation of emotional intelligence. Thought leaders understand the power of empathy, conflict resolution, and self-awareness. This emotional acumen forms the connective tissue that binds their influence, enabling authentic relationships and guiding effective leadership.

Mastering Effective Communication

Effective communication is at the heart of thought leadership. It is the skill that can transform ideas into movements and insights into inspiration. The impact of a thought leader depends on their ability to convey messages with clarity and purpose. Whether addressing a room full of peers or reaching a global audience through various mediums, communication is the vehicle that propels ideas forward.

In this section, we explore the intricacies of mastering communication as a thought leader. We cover the development of public speaking skills, the art of crafting compelling content, and the pivotal role of presentation and storytelling skills in amplifying one’s impact.

Developing Strong Public Speaking Skills

For thought leaders, the stage is not just a platform; it’s a canvas on which ideas are painted with eloquence and conviction. Developing strong public speaking skills involves honing the ability to captivate an audience, convey complex concepts clearly, and command attention with a confident presence. Thought leaders understand that every word spoken on stage has the potential to inspire, influence, and enact change.

Crafting Compelling Content

Words possess the power to shape opinions, provoke thought, and ignite action. Thought leaders are adept at crafting content that resonates deeply with their audience. They transform abstract concepts into relatable narratives, engaging readers and listeners alike.

Thought leadership is all about understanding the big trends affecting your customers and being known for it through having demonstrated this expertise by creating attention-grabbing insights.

Prizeman, T., The Thought Leadership Manual (2015)

Crafting compelling content involves finding the right tone, style, and structure that captures attention and sparks meaningful conversations. We will delve into creating compelling content when we discuss Demonstrating Expertise and Credibility.

The Role of Presentation and Storytelling Skills in Thought Leadership

In thought leadership, more than merely information is needed; the art of presentation and storytelling truly sets the stage for impactful influence. Thought leaders are skilled narrators who weave a tapestry of ideas, insights, and anecdotes that resonate emotionally. Through well-crafted presentations and captivating storytelling, thought leaders not only inform but also evoke empathy, connection, and a shared sense of purpose. These skills are the vehicles that carry their innovative ideas beyond the boundaries of individual thought and into the collective consciousness of their audience.

Effective communication is the key to success in thought leadership. It helps to bridge the gap between visionary ideas and receptive minds, and transforms thought leaders into communicators who can act as catalysts for change.

man in plaid long sleeve shirt presenting in a meeting
Presentation and Storytelling Skills for Strategy Development and Stakeholder Engagement

Learn about the significance of presentation and storytelling skills for strategists seeking to transform their user experience vision into a tangible reality (Photo by Tima Miroshnichenko on

Innovative Thinking and Idea Generation

This section explores the importance of innovative thinking and idea generation in shaping visionary leaders. We delve into the key skills and techniques needed for idea generation, from dealing with uncertainty and ambiguity to the art of problem framing. Successful thought leaders embrace the intricacies of uncertainty as a canvas for ideation, while a clear vision guides their creative process. Creating choices empowers them to explore diverse possibilities. Essential tools for shaping ideas into actionable plans include facilitating good decisions and navigating design reviews and critiques.

Dealing with Uncertainty and Ambiguity

Design is at the core of successful innovation. While working on innovation projects, designers have to deal with the uncertainty associated with complexity, multi-disciplinarity, and fluid desired outcomes that, in the early phases, are not – and are not supposed to be – foreseeable (Daalhuizen, J., Badke-Schaub, P., & Batill, S. M., Dealing with Uncertainty in Design Practice, 2009).

I’ve worked on innovative projects for well-known companies for over 25 years and observed that people vary widely regarding their ability to handle uncertainty. Some colleagues find comfort in knowing everything beforehand, while others thrive with a fuzzy notion of what they should do. The irony is that people who faced uncertainty well were usually more successful than those who didn’t.

Evolutionarily, the brain dislikes uncertainty, regarding it as a type of pain. The brain, therefore, tries to avoid uncertainty and in its place, creates story upon story to explain it away (Small, A., & Schmutte, K., Navigating ambiguity, 2022).

This natural instinct to live is totally awesome. But it gives us a bias toward certainty and away from uncertainty. We have a natural tendency to prefer knowing over not knowing.

Small, A., & Schmutte, K., Navigating ambiguity (2022)

In 2016, researchers at University College London ran a shocking little experiment measuring how uncertainty affects people. Research participants were asked to lift rocks in a video game. If a snake was under the rock, they received a nonvirtual, very real electric shock via an electrode on the back of their left hand. The participants’ stress was tracked through physiological signs, like sweating and pupil dilation, and saying things like “please, no more, make it stop” (we’re guessing). The “game” was designed to keep participants fluctuating between confidence and uncertainty about what was under the rock. This study uncovered a fundamental aspect of psychology: stress peaks when uncertainty peaks when people were the most unsure about what was under the rock. It feels more stressful to be uncertain than it does to feel certain about something bad. We prefer to know, even if it’s not good (Small, A., & Schmutte, K., Navigating ambiguity, 2022)

Stress peaks when uncertainty peaks when people were the most unsure about what was under the rock. It feels more stressful to be uncertain than it does to feel certain about something bad. We prefer to know, even if it’s not good.

Small, A., & Schmutte, K., Navigating ambiguity (2022)

For example, it can feel more stressful not knowing how a critique will go than knowing you’re definitely about to get chewed out. Or not knowing whether you’ll get the role or funding or project. The waiting game can feel more stressful than the potential bad outcome itself (Small, A., & Schmutte, K., Navigating ambiguity , 2022)

We are all wired to fear the downsides of uncertainty, but we forget that change, creation, transformation, and innovation rarely show up without some measure of it.

Furr, N., The upside of uncertainty (2022)

This is to say that this anxiety you are experiencing in the face of uncertainty and ambiguity is natural! You are not less competent or “weak” because of it! The first step towards building emotional resilience is acknowledging you are not your emotions!

It’s our job as designers to resist the chemical bias for certainty. Your brain naturally builds limiting beliefs about what is happening, and you must continually break through these ingrained beliefs to imagine something new. “And though that’s not particularly comfortable,” Patrice Martin, designer and former creative director at, says, “it allows us to open up creatively, to pursue lots of different ideas, and to arrive at unexpected solutions.” (Small, A., & Schmutte, K., Navigating ambiguity, 2022).

While I’ll provide some practical tips for dealing with uncertainty and ambiguity, I suggest you look inside yourself, take a deep breath, and not worry! You might be saying, That’s easy for you to say, “Don’t worry! Don’t be anxious?” You will say it’s easier said than done, so you might want to listen to someone a lot wiser than me:

“That is why I tell you not to worry about everyday life—whether you have enough food and drink, or enough clothes to wear. Isn’t life more than food, and your body more than clothing? Look at the birds. They don’t plant or harvest or store food in barns, for your heavenly Father feeds them. And aren’t you far more valuable to him than they are? Can all your worries add a single moment to your life?”

Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 6:25-27 NLT

That said, not worrying doesn’t make the world less uncertain and ambiguous, so you will need to learn to deal with uncertainty and ambiguity and not be paralysed by them!

man wearing black and white stripe shirt looking at white printer papers on the wall
Dealing with Uncertainty and Ambiguity

Learn how designers can deal with Uncertainty and Ambiguity, while using tools to help them tackle complex problems more effectively (Photo by Startup Stock Photos on

Problem Framing

In my experience, the biggest disconnect between the work designers need to do and the mindset of every other team member in a team is usually about how quickly we tend — when not facilitated — to jump to solutions instead of contemplating and exploring the problem space a little longer.

It’s tempting to appear decisive by jumping straight to the conclusion and making rapid decisions. But the chances are that those rapid decisions are predictable courses based on existing assumptions and prejudices, and that another chance for innovation as escaped.

Sloane, P., The leader’s guide to lateral thinking skills (2017)

When your team can’t agree on a solution, it’s probably a good time to take a step back and align on the problem you are solving for. I think designers should facilitate the discussions and help others raise awareness around the creative and problem-solving process instead of complaining that everyone else is jumping \ too quickly into solutions.

The way you frame the problem determines which solutions you come up with (Wedelll-Wedellsborg, T.,  What’s Your Problem?, 2020).

The art of designing solutions starts with the frame. Where you draw the boundaries of an investigation will determine — in large part — what your conclusions will be and what kind of process you’ll use to get there.

Neumeier, M., Metaskills: Five talents for the future of work (2013)

Are there any universal technique for drawing the edges of a problem? Luckily, there are. Here’s a short course in the art of framing (Neumeier, M., Metaskills: Five talents for the future of work, 2013):

  1. View the problem from multiple angles. Like it or not, we all get stuck in our own belief systems. The easiest way to get free is to look a the problem from three positions: our own viewpoint (known as first position), other people’s viewpoints (known as second position), and the viewpoint from a higher-order system (known as metaposition).
  2. Develop a problem statement. Brevity and simplicity are key!
  3. List the knowns and unknowns. What are the known parameters of the problem? Can you visualise and name the parts? What are the relationships between the parts? What is the nature of the problem? Is it a simple problem? A complex problem? A structural problem? A communication problem? What remedies have been attempted in the past, and what they failed? Why bother solving the problem in the first place?
  4. Change the frame. What happens when you make the frame bigger or smaller? Or even swap it for another one?
  5. Make a simple model. Constructing a model is a practical way of visualising the key elements of a problem. Statistician George Box once said, “Essentially, all models are wrong, but some are useful”.
yellow letter tiles
Problem Framing for Strategic Design

Learn more about problem framing techniques that can help you get team alignment by creating clarity of what problems they are trying to solve in Problem Framing for Strategic Design (Photo by Ann H on

The Importance of Vision

Have you ever been part of a team that didn’t seem to make any progress? Maybe the group had plenty of talent, resources, and opportunities, and team members got along, but the group never went anywhere? If you have, there is a strong possibility that the situation was caused by a lack of vision (Maxwell, J. C., The 17 indisputable laws of teamwork, 2013).

Great vision precedes great achievement. Every team needs a compelling vision to give it direction. A team without vision is, at worst, purposeless. At best, it is subject to the personal (and sometimes selfish) agendas of its various teammates.

Maxwell, J. C., The 17 indisputable laws of teamwork (2013)

In the second post of this series, I mentioned that I’ve found that — more often than not — is not for the lack of ideas that teams cannot innovate, but because of all the friction or drag created by not having a shared vision and understanding of what the problems they are trying to solve.

As the agendas work against each other, the team’s energy and drive drain away.

Maxwell, J. C., The 17 indisputable laws of teamwork (2013)

Just to make sure I’m not misunderstood — as my colleague Anton Fischer usually says — it doesn’t matter at that point if the team lacks a vision or the vision is just poorly communicated, the result is the same: the team will lack engagement and slowly drift apart.

A global study conducted in 2012 involving 300,000 employees found that just over half did not really understand the basics of their organizations’ strategies (Zook, C., & Allen, J., Repeatability, 2012). Given the effort applied to strategy development, there is a massive disconnect here. The opportunity to reconnect a firm with its strategy lies in how the strategy is communicated and understood (Callahan, S., Putting Stories to Work, 2016).

Six Strategic Questions, adapted from "Strategy Blueprint" in Mapping Experiences: A Guide to Creating Value through Journeys, Blueprints, and Diagrams (Kalbach, 2020).
Six Strategic Questions, adapted from “Strategy Blueprint” in Mapping Experiences: A Guide to Creating Value through Journeys, Blueprints, and Diagrams (Kalbach, 2020)

The first thing most people do when they hear the word “vision” in a business context is a yawn. That’s because visions are vague, unclear, and – frankly – nothing to get excited about. Well-designed visions should be rally cries for action, invention, and innovation (Van Der Pijl, P., Lokitz, J., & Solomon, L. K., Design a better business: New tools, skills, and mindset for strategy and innovation, 2016)

Designers should advocate for the importance of vision and facilitate the creation of product visions that explain a strategy’s complex connection and express the product’s future intended destination. (Fish, L., Kiekbusch, S., “The State of the Designer” in The Designer’s Guide to Product Vision, 2020).

beach bench boardwalk bridge
Strategy and the Importance of Vision

Learn more about importance of vision for creating shared understanding around why are we bringing a product to market in the first place (Photo by Pixabay on

Creating Choices

Designers may have naively believed that the user perspective can be provided at one point of the product development lifecycle (e.g. during project/backlog/sprint planning phase).

In reality any product that makes into the the world it’s actually the outcome of a set of dozens, hundreds or thousands of decisions along the way. Each decision building upon each other, informing and influencing all aspects of the user experience (Garrett, J.J, Elements of User Experience: User-Centered Design for the Web and Beyond“, 2010).

Strategy is a set of choices about winning that uniquely positions the firm in its industry so as to create sustainable advantage and superior value relative to the competition.

“How Strategy Really Works” in Playing to Win: How Strategy Really Works (Lafley, A.G., Martin, R. L., 2013)

It is crucial that designers engage with their business stakeholders to understand what objectives and unique positions they want their products to assume in the industry, and the choices that are making in order to achieve such objectives and positions.

The effectiveness of the team in making good decision by picking the right choices depends on their ability of generating alternatives.

Design is about exploring and comparing merits of alternatives. There is not just one path, and at any given time or any given question, there may be numerous different alternatives being considered, only one of which will eventually find itself in the product.

Buxton, B., Sketching user experiences: Getting the design right and the right design (2007)

Without multiple solutions to any question, the process is highly vulnerable. Without the ability to see all the work at once, spread out, relationships will be missed, and the conversation and subsequent designs will suffer. (Buxton, B., Sketching user experiences: Getting the design right and the right design, 2007).

Your decision can be no better than your best alternative.

“Create imaginative alternatives” in Smart choices: A practical guide to making better decisions, Hammond, J. S., Keeney, R. L., & Raiffa, H. (2015)

In our decisions, we select alternatives with the greatest value as we see it. Thus, to reach decision quality, the list of alternatives should be large and varied enough to include a full range of possibilities. They should be good alternatives, meaning they are (Spetzler, C., Winter, H., & Meyer, J., Decision quality: Value creation from better business decisions, 2016):

  • Creative. The decision should include creative alternatives that are not immediately obvious or in line with conventional thinking. They are outside the box. Creative thinking often uncovers alternatives with enormous and unexpected potential value.
  • Significantly different. Alternatives should not be minor variations but significantly different from one another in ways that truly matter. A significantly different alternative challenges current ways of thinking and approaches the problem in a novel way.
  • Representative of a broad range of choices. Two alternatives are seldom sufficient. Alternatives should cover the full range of possible choices because one never knows in advance where the greatest source of value may be hidden.
  • Reasonable contenders for selection. Each alternative should be one that could actually be selected. In a good set of alternatives, there is no place for decoys, patently inferior alternatives which serve no purpose but to make some other alternative look good by comparison. Nor is there a place for outlandish alternatives that will surely be rejected. However, we shouldn’t be too quick in dis missing an alternative just because we assume it will be vetoed. An alternative that is logical, represents real value, and is properly presented may be competitive with other options.
  • Compelling. Every alternative should represent enough potential value that it will generate interest and excitement. An alternative is compelling when it inspires at least one person to say, “We really should take a careful look at this.”
  • Feasible. A feasible (doable or actionable) alternative is one that can actually be implemented. If it isn’t feasible, it doesn’t belong on the alternatives list. That said, half-baked alternatives should not be dismissed too early before feasibility has been explored appropriately.
  • Manageable in number. Three alternatives are generally better than two, and four are likely to be better than three. It doesn’t follow, however, that 20 alternatives are better than 4. As we’ll see later, each alternative must be analyzed, evaluated, and compared with other choices. What we need is a manageable set of alternatives one that covers the range of distinctly different choices while being within our ability to analyze and compare. In relatively simple decision problems, three or four alternatives may be enough, whereas more complex decision problems may require four to seven, or more.
aisle architecture building business
Strategy and the Art of Creating Choices

Learn more how designers can step up to the plate and become skilled facilitators that help teams create choices (Photo by Pixabay on

Facilitating Good Decisions

We all want to believe that all decisions are made with care and consideration, even though we know it can’t possibly be so. There is limited time and limited brain power, and not all decisions can be made equally well (Berkun, S., Making things happen: Mastering project management, 2008).

A good decision helps the person get closer to their goals; was made with the most relevant information available; is based on priorities that the person cares about.

“Weapon of Choice” in Engaged: Designing for Behavior Change, Bucher, A, (2020)

The first step to making good decisions is to stop relying (too much) on instincts and challenge our own biases. Are you aware of your own biases? Let’s find out!

(Don’t) Trust Your Instincts

Humans tend to place a lot of value on instinct. Especially as the pace of modern life forces us at times to think quickly on our feet and make an immediate decision, we believe that having superior instincts helps us get along. That’s certainly true to an extent. But the problem is that sometimes we confuse instinct as a substitute for good judgment. Instincts — otherwise knowns as a gut feeling or hunches — are probably wrong the vast majority of the time (King, P., The Art of Clear Thinking, 2019).

Creating great choices starts by recognizing that (Riel, J., & Martin, R. L., Creating great choices. 2017):

  • Our thinking is implicit and rarely questioned.
  • Our models of the world can be influenced by forces we are unaware of.
  • We default to simplistic models of the world and rely on basic heuristics to get through the day.
  • We tend to seek out the single right answer to any given problem.

These limitations easily produce problem-solving approaches that are implicit, narrow, and flawed, they tend to create an insular mindset that discounts other people and their alternative points of view. And they tend to produce bad decisions.

Many psychologies and neuroscientists have been converging on a description of the brain’s functioning that helps us make sense of our implicit, narrow, and flawed thinking. The approach involves a distinction between two kinds of thinking, one that is intuitive and automatic, and another that is reflective and rational (Thaler, R. H., & Sunstein, “How We Think” in Nudge: Improving decisions about health, wealth and happiness, 2009):

  • The Automatic System: Uncontrolled, effortless, associative, fast, unconscious, skilled.
  • Reflective System: controlled, effortful, deductive, slow, self-aware, rule-following.

Most of us are prone to decision-making using the automated system rather than the reflective system. Too much reliance on reactive thinking tips us into (Griffiths, C., & Costi, M., The Creative Thinking Handbook, 2019):

  • Acting on an idea in the heat of the moment because we want to be a first mover. Recent history shows that being first into a market or launching a new product doesn’t guarantee success and can even be destructive (note: business is a marathon run in a series of sprints, not a single sprint).
  • Mindlessly copying what others are doing rather than consciously creating our own futures. We become followers, not leaders!
  • An over-reliance on ‘listening to our customers”. This cheats us into making reactive so-so changes and improvements, and we miss out on designing those breakthrough innovations. Most of the time, customers don’t know what they want until we show it to them.
  • Non-stop access to information is — on the one side — wonderful and — on the other — utterly overwhelming. Before we know it, we’re in a stressed-auto frenzy trying to keep our head above the flood of e-mails, reports, projects, blog posts, updates, and sundry that add up to information overload. Watch out for the tendency to react instantly and automatically to information. A quick decision is seldom the best decision.
Sizing up Decisions

A critical initial step of decision-making is to determine the significance of the decision at hand (Berkun, S., Making things happen: Mastering project management, 2008):

  • What problem is at the core of the decision? Decisions often arise in response to new information, and the initial way the issue is raised focuses on the acute and narrow aspects of the problem. It’s important to ask probing questions. For example, the problem might be defined initially as “we don’t have time to fix all 50 known bugs we’ve found”, but the real issue is probably “we have no criteria for how to triage bugs.” Redefining the decision (or problem reframing) into a more useful form improves decision quality. Being calm in response to a seemingly urgent issue helps make this happen. Ask questions like “What is the cause of this problem? Is it isolated, or will it impact other areas? Whose problem is it? Which goals in the vision don’t put at risk? Did we already make this decision in the space? If so, do we have good reasons to reconsider now?”
  • How long will this decision impact the project? How deep will the impact be? A big decision (such as the direction of the vision) will impact the entire project. A small decision (such as what time to have a meeting or what the agenda should be) will impact a small number of people in a limited way. If it’s a long-term decision (and the impact is big), patience and rigor are required. It’s a short-term decision with shallow impact; go for speed and clarity based on a clear sense of the strategic decision made in the vision.
  • If you’re wrong, what is the impact/cost? What other decisions will be impacted? If the impact is small or negligible, there isn’t much to lose. However, this doesn’t mean you should start flipping coins. For aspects of the project, such as usability or reliability, quality comes from many small decisions being aligned with each other. The phrase “death by a thousand cuts” comes from this situation, whether it’s not one big mistake that gets us: it’s the many tiny ones. So you must as least consider whether the choice is truly isolated. If it isn’t, it’s best to try and make several choices at once.
  • What is the window of opportunity? If you wait to make the decision, it can be made for you – routes will close and options will go away. In this universe, big decisions don’t necessarily come with greater amounts of time to make them. Sometimes, you have to make tough strategic decisions quickly because of the limited window of opportunity. Sometimes, the speed of making a decision is more important than the quality of the decision itself (specially in competitive environments). Quick action can shift what in military terminology is called “the burden of uncertainty”: by taking early action, you force the competitor (or partner) to respond.
  • Have we made this kind of decision before? This is the arrogance test. If someone where to put you in an emergency room and asked you to perform heart bypass surgery, how confident would you be? There is no shame in admitting arrogance: it generally takes courage to do so. There will be times when you have no idea how to do something. Don’t hide it or let anyone else hide it. Instead, identify that you think the team, or yourself, is inexperienced with this kind of choice and needs outside help (or more time). If a leaders admits ignorance, she makes it OK for everyone else to do the same.
  • Who has the expert decision? Is this really my decision? Just because someone asks you to decide something doesn’t mean you are the best person to make the call. You are better at some decision than others, so don’t relay on your own decision making limitations. Never be afraid to pick up the phone and call the people who know more than you about an issue. At least ask for their consultation and bring them into the discussion. Consider delegating the choice entirely to them: ask whether they think it’s their call to make or yours.
  • Whose approval do we need? Whose feedback do we want/need before we decide? The larger the organization, the ore overhead costs there are around decisions. A trivial decision can become complex when the politics of stakeholders come into play. A good test of your authority is how often trivial decisions require approvals or the formation of committees. The more processes there are around decisions, the more you must work through influence rather than decree. There are political costs to decision that have nothing to do with technology, business, or customer considerations, and the impact of a decision includes them.
banking business checklist commerce
Strategy and Facilitating Good Decisions

Learn more about Facilitating Good Decisions (Photo by Pixabay on

Design Reviews and Critiques

Feedback is a common element and activity in our workplace cultures and many social cultures. “Feedback” is a word that’s become ingrained in our vocabulary. We use it all the time, à la “I’d love to get your feedback on something…” In human-to-human interactions, such as our conversations in our projects, the feedback we receive might be nothing more than a gut reaction to whatever is being presented. And to be quite honest, even though we might not want to admit it, that’s often all it is (Connor, A., & Irizarry, A., Discussing Design , 2015).

Feedback is an important part of the design process, but the term itself and the way we often ask for it is very broad and can produce conversations that aren’t useful.

Connor, A., & Irizarry, A., Discussing Design (2015)

The problem with asking for feedback is that — most times — we aren’t being specific enough in describing what we want feedback on and why we are asking for it. Sometimes, the input we receive might be a gut reaction. Occasionally, we might get back a list of instructions or suggestions on what to change. Sometimes, we might get comments that describe how what we’ve designed doesn’t match what the critic would have designed. Weeding through all that feedback to determine what’s of use to us–what will help us identify the aspects of our design that we should iterate upon–can be a struggle (Connor, A., & Irizarry, A., Discussing Design, 2015).

There are three forms of feedback, all of which vary in their degree of usefulness to us in the design process (Connor, A., & Irizarry, A., Discussing Design, 2015):

  1. Reaction-based feedback happens quickly and instinctively, usually filled with passion and driven by someone’s expectationsdesires, and values.
  2. Direction-based feedback usually begins with an instruction or suggestion. The individual providing it is often looking for ways to bring the design more in line with their own expectations of what the solution should be.
  3. Critique. This form of feedback is the most helpful to us in understanding the impact of our design decisions.

Reaction and direction are limited in their ability to help us understand if our design choices might work toward the product’s objective. Critique – a form of analysis that uses critical thinking – is the feedback that focuses on precisely that understanding (Connor, A., & Irizarry, A., Discussing Design, 2015).

After working as a designer for more than 25 years, I have a few disclaimers to share with you before deep-diving into critique:

  • The first one is based on my observation of working with team members for which term first language is not English: the word “critique” might have very different connotations in their native language, including some very negative ones as — for example — for German speakers, where critique reminds them of criticism.
  • Speaking of criticism, everyone seems to dread their work being criticized. Yet, most people don’t seem to have a problem being critical of the work of others, either intentionally or not!
  • The second is based on my design background: if you’ve been trained in some form of design program — especially with a strong design studio tradition — as I have, then you’ll remember how taking criticism (while painful at first) was something that became easier and easier the more you practiced. So now look at the background of your team, and — more likely than not — you will realize that most of them did not have that background! Criticism is not natural for them: neither to give nor to receive!

This is a long way of saying that — out of all the facilitation skills I’ve been sharing, critique is going to be the one that you’ll probably have to spend the most energy for the longest to build the muscles and create a team culture around it!

letters on wooden cubes
Strategy, Feedback and Design Reviews

Influencing larger decisions that shape strategy starts with the smallest of decisions, including how to facilitate and incorporate feedback to designs to drive product vision forward (Photo by Ann H on

Demonstrating Expertise and Credibility

While the recognition of expertise and credibility undeniably fuels the growth of thought leaders’ influence, it’s crucial to acknowledge that true influence doesn’t solely stem from titles or years of experience. Thought leaders must recognize that their impact is derived from their capacity to influence without relying on traditional forms of authority.

The True Measure of Leadership is Influence – Nothing more, Nothing less.

Maxwell, J.C., “The Law of Influence” in The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership: Follow Them and People Will Follow You, (2007)

Thought leadership transcends conventional hierarchies, allowing them to sway opinions, inspire action, and drive change through the compelling nature of their ideas. The true measure of their influence lies in their ability to articulate insights, share perspectives, and foster engagement that resonates with others, regardless of their position or background. In this way, thought leaders empower themselves not by authority, but by the art of persuasion and the credibility of their contributions.

This section focuses on the important skills that make thought leaders stand out as reliable sources of insight. These skills include staying up-to-date and relevant, taking tangible actions to demonstrate thought leadership, and avoiding accidental diminishers that can harm your brand. By mastering these skills, you can establish yourself as a trustworthy thought leader who can guide and innovate in your field. We’ll explore how authenticity and expertise are woven together to form the foundation of your thought leadership journey.

Staying Informed

In the rapidly evolving landscape of modern industries, staying informed is a pivotal strategy for thought leaders seeking to maintain their edge and relevance. Continuous learning serves as the compass guiding thought leaders through the labyrinth of changing trends, emerging technologies, and evolving best practices. At its core, staying informed involves not only consuming information but also critically evaluating, synthesizing, and integrating it into one’s knowledge base. This practice is underpinned by a few principles (Craig, W., Thought leadership: Why it’s essential to stay up-to-date with your industry, 2015):

  • Commitment to Continuous Learning: Thought leaders understand that the process of learning doesn’t have an endpoint. They recognize that the only way to remain at the forefront of their industry is to dedicate themselves to continuous learning. This involves reading industry publications, attending conferences, engaging in webinars, participating in workshops, and actively seeking out new perspectives. Through this commitment, thought leaders expose themselves to a diverse range of viewpoints and ideas, allowing them to cultivate a well-rounded and forward-thinking perspective.
  • Utilizing Reputable Sources and Data: In the digital age, information is abundant but not always accurate or reliable. Thought leaders set themselves apart by meticulously sourcing information from reputable, well-established sources. They prioritize data-backed insights from credible research studies, renowned institutions, and industry thought leaders. By relying on reputable sources, thought leaders ensure that the information they consume and share is accurate and trustworthy, reinforcing their credibility and authority.
  • Synthesizing and Integrating Insights: Staying informed goes beyond passively absorbing information; it requires the ability to synthesize and integrate insights into one’s existing knowledge framework. Thought leaders excel at connecting the dots between different pieces of information, identifying patterns, and uncovering underlying trends. This ability to synthesize diverse information empowers them to develop holistic perspectives that drive innovative thinking and thought leadership.
  • Elevating Ideas with Data: Utilizing data to back up ideas and insights is a hallmark of thought leadership. Thought leaders recognize that data-driven content is more compelling and persuasive. Whether referencing statistics, surveys, case studies, or research findings, incorporating data into their content elevates their ideas and lends them a layer of credibility that resonates with their audience.

Creating Compelling Content

Creating Compelling Content is the cornerstone of thought leadership, as beautifully articulated by Tim Prizeman in his book The Thought Leadership. It’s the art of crafting content that embodies the essence of thought leadership—original, impactful, evidence-based, articulate, and influential. Building upon Prizeman’s definition, let’s explore each aspect in depth:

  • Original Ideas: Thought leaders don’t follow the crowd; they pave their own paths. They generate ideas that challenge conventions, provoke discussions, and present fresh perspectives. These original insights set thought leaders apart, positioning them as forward-thinkers who dare to explore uncharted territory.
  • Important Implications: Thought leadership isn’t just about intriguing concepts; it’s about ideas that matter. Thought leaders delve into topics that have real-world implications—concepts that can transform industries, shape strategies, or bring about meaningful change. Their ideas resonate because they touch upon issues that impact the lives of individuals, organizations, or society at large.
  • Backed by Evidence: Thought leaders understand that opinions are more persuasive when substantiated by solid evidence. They integrate data, research findings, case studies, and expert opinions to fortify their claims. This evidence-based approach lends credibility and authenticity to their ideas, making them more compelling and trustworthy.
  • Clearly Expressed: The power of thought leadership lies in clarity. Thought leaders communicate their ideas succinctly and effectively, ensuring that their insights are accessible to a wide audience. They distill complex concepts into digestible narratives, making their content engaging and understandable for both experts and newcomers to the field.
  • Publicly Discussed: Thought leadership thrives in the realm of public discourse. It’s not confined to isolated conversations; it’s shared, debated, and discussed openly. Thought leaders actively participate in conversations through various channels—blogs, articles, social media, conferences—to ensure their ideas are part of broader discussions and debates.
  • Strongly Influence the Opinions of Others: Ultimately, thought leadership is about making an impact. Thought leaders don’t just present ideas for the sake of it; they seek to shape opinions, inspire action, and drive change. Their insights resonate deeply, challenging existing paradigms and prompting individuals to reevaluate their perspectives.

By crafting attention-grabbing insights and perspectives, thought leaders can leverage platforms like blogs, articles, and social media to not only showcase their knowledge but also to contribute to industry discourse and shape the direction of discussions.

Building your brand

In the fast-paced realm of modern leadership, where innovation and influence go hand in hand, the concept of building a personal brand has taken center stage. Denise Brousseau has developed a seven-step process to help individuals successfully transition from a leader to thought leader (Brosseau, D., Ready to Be a Thought Leader?, 2014):

  1. Find your driving passion: You will be far more effective if you identify one arena where your interests, expertise, credibility, and commitment align — your “thought leadership intersection point.” Next you will craft a clear What If? future, a possible future that you are committed to bring about. When you identify and align to key trends gain momentum and be well on your way to make significant difference, not only in your company or community, but access your industry or niche.
  2. Build Your Ripples of Influence: to build your first ripples of change, you need to test your ideas and opinions (often not yet fully baked) with knowledgable stakeholders — colleagues, mentors, and friends — gather their input, and continually refine your thinking. By listening to what resonates, you will distill many different points of view into the kern of a transformative idea that will bring about the What If?
  3. Activate Your Advocates: to expand your influence beyond your existing team or organization will require that you attract supporters and well connected advocates — community leaders, industry spokespeople, analysts, journalists, research groups, or national partners — who can champion your product, program, initiative, or idea to a much broader set of audiences.
  4. Put Your “I” on the Line: to build sustainable momentum for a new idea requires someone to show the way, someone willing to step into the limelight and say “follow me”. You will need to overcome self-imposed limits to standing front and center and risking your reputation to espouse a new direction or vision of the future, often long before others agree with your point.
  5. Codify Your Lessons Learned: the essential different between leaders and thought leaders is often the latter’s ability to distill their know-how into a replicable model so that others can be inspired and empowered to expand on what those leaders have accomplished.
  6. Put Yourself on S.H.O.U.T.: to increase your credibility, strategic visibility, and reputation and gain recognition as a thought leaders, you will have to get the word out about your activities, efforts, and lessons learned. You are not a thought leader if no one knows anything about you or what you’ve accomplished. You need to be discoverable and connect with those who can build on your ideas.
  7. Incite (R)Evolution: You will need to keep monitoring our progress to ensure you gain traction for your ideas locally, regionally, and even internationally. As you accelerate and amplify your voice, you’ll increase your influence of followers that will carry forward your efforts, while preventing burn out as you bring the evolutionary and even revolutionary change.

Credibility and Trust

Trust relationships are vital to the way we do business today. In fact, the level of trust in business relationships, whether internal with employees or colleagues or external with clients and partners, is the greatest determinant of success. The challenge is having a conceptual framework and analytical way of evaluating and understanding trust. Without the proper framework for evaluating trust, there’s no actionable way to improve our trustworthiness (Maister, D. H., Galford, R., & Green, C, The trusted advisor, 2021).

Trust must be earned and deserved. You must do something to give the other people the evidence on which they can base their decision on whether to trust you. You must be willing to give in order to get.

Maister, D. H., Galford, R., & Green, C, The trusted advisor (2021)

Share information and knowledge freely with your constituents, show that you understand their needs and interests, open up to their influence, make wise use of their abilities and expertise, and — most of all — demonstrate that you trust them before you ask them to trust you (Kouzes, J. M., & Posner, B. Z.,  Leadership Challenge: How to Make Extraordinary Things Happen in Organizations, 2017).

To understand the variables that go into building trust, I’ve found the Trust Equation very helpful.

The Trust Equation is a deconstructive, analytical model of trustworthiness that can be easily understood and used to help yourself and your organization. The Trust Equation uses four objective variables to measure trustworthiness. These four variables are best described as CredibilityReliabilityIntimacy, and Self-Orientation (Maister, D. H., Galford, R., & Green, C, The trusted advisor, 2021).

The Trust Equation
The Trust Equation is now the cornerstone of our practice: a deconstructive, analytical model of trustworthiness that can be easily understood and used to help yourself and your organization.

Let’s dig into each variable a bit more (Maister, D. H., Galford, R., & Green, C, The trusted advisor, 2021):

  • Credibility has to do with the words we speak. In a sentence, we might say, “I can trust what she says about intellectual property; she’s very credible on the subject.”
  • Reliability has to do with actions. We might say, “If he says he’ll deliver the product tomorrow, I trust him, because he’s dependable.”
  • Intimacy refers to the safety or security that we feel when entrusting someone with something. We might say, “I can trust her with that information; she’s never violated my confidentiality before, and she would never embarrass me.”
  • Self-orientation refers to the person’s focus. In particular, whether the person’s focus is primarily on him or herself, or on the other person. We might say, “I can’t trust him on this deal — I don’t think he cares enough about me, he’s focused on what he gets out of it.” Or more commonly, “I don’t trust him — I think he’s too concerned about how he’s appearing, so he’s not really paying attention.”

There are two important things about building trust. First, it has to do with keeping one’s self-interest in check. Second, trust can be won or lost very rapidly (Maister, D. H., Galford, R., & Green, C, The trusted advisor, 2021).

group of people sitting in front of table
Strategy and Stakeholder Management

Discover the necessary skills for design strategists to influence the decisions that propel design vision forward in the areas of Strategy and Stakeholder Management (Photo by Rebrand Cities on

Identifying and Avoiding Accidental Diminishers

Liz Wiseman’s groundbreaking book Multipliers: How the Best Leaders Make Everyone Smarter introduces a compelling concept known as “Accidental Diminishers.” In contrast to traditional leaders who intentionally amplify the capabilities of their teams, Accidental Diminishers are leaders whose behaviors inadvertently stifle the potential and productivity of their employees. Wiseman’s exploration of this concept sheds light on how seemingly well-intentioned leaders can unintentionally undermine the talents and contributions of their team members.

Accidental Diminishers often possess qualities that on the surface may appear positive: they may be experts in their fields, highly driven, and committed to achieving results. However, their actions can inadvertently create an environment that limits the growth and performance of those around them.

Ask yourself, “How might my best intentions be shutting down good ideas and smart people?”

Wiseman, L., Multipliers (2017)

Thought leaders must master the delicate art of balance—aligning their demonstration of expertise and credibility with a profound self-awareness that guards against unintentional diminishing behaviors. While qualities like deep expertise, relentless drive, and a commitment to results are often celebrated, thought leaders must recognize that these attributes can inadvertently transform into accidental diminishers. This shift highlights the critical need for leaders to cultivate humility and an acute understanding of how their actions may impact their teams.

Accidental Diminishes
Wiseman, L., Multipliers, 2017 (Credit: Alex Parkin)

Striving to be multipliers rather than diminishers, thought leaders channel their knowledge and passion into empowering those around them. This duality of strength and humility underpins their ability to foster an environment where every team member’s contributions flourish, ensuring that the pursuit of excellence doesn’t come at the cost of stifling innovation and growth.

For thought leaders, recognizing and addressing accidental diminisher behaviors is not only an exercise in self-improvement but a strategic pathway to fostering growth, empowerment, and an environment of collective intelligence. The transition from diminishing to multiplying calls for a deliberate approach that transforms these behaviors into catalysts for positive change. Here are strategies that thought leaders can adopt to turn accidental diminishers into opportunities for growth and empowerment:

  1. Self-Reflection and Awareness: Start by cultivating self-awareness. Regularly reflect on your interactions and leadership style to identify any patterns of diminishing behavior. Acknowledge that even well-intentioned actions can have unintended consequences. By being attuned to your own behaviors, you can actively work on adjusting them to create a more empowering atmosphere.
  2. Active Listening and Soliciting Input: Encourage open dialogue by actively seeking input and perspectives from the people you are trying to influence. Practice active listening and make an effort to engage in meaningful discussions where everyone’s opinions are valued. This not only boosts team morale but also generates diverse insights that can drive innovative solutions.
  3. Delegation and Empowerment: Shift from micromanagement to effective delegation. Assign tasks and responsibilities while giving the people you are trying to influence the autonomy to make decisions and find their own solutions. This cultivates a sense of ownership and empowerment, enabling team members to take ownership of their work.
  4. Embracing Vulnerability: Model vulnerability by admitting mistakes or areas where you may not have all the answers. This fosters a culture of openness and trust, enabling others to feel more comfortable sharing their ideas and concerns.
  5. Continuous Learning and Adaptation: Recognize that growth is an ongoing process. Stay committed to continuous learning and adaptation. Embrace new insights and strategies to refine your leadership approach and consistently enhance the empowerment of your team.

By integrating these strategies, thought leaders can transform their leadership style, turning accidental diminishers into opportunities for growth and empowerment. The shift from unintentional stifling to intentional amplification paves the way for an environment where every team member thrives, leading to innovation, collaboration, and sustainable success.

Managing and Adapting to Change

Being a successful thought leader in the constantly evolving world of design and strategy requires the ability to manage and adapt to change. Staying up-to-date with industry trends and advancements is not just a choice, but a necessity. By keeping their finger on the pulse of emerging developments, designers and strategists can navigate shifts, embrace new opportunities, and maintain their relevance as thought leaders. It’s important to understand why this skill is crucial and how it can contribute to thought leadership in the realm of design and strategy.

In this context, change management skills emerge as a critical asset for any aspiring thought leader. These skills encompass the art of orchestrating transformation, propelling organizations and industries forward, and setting the stage for innovation that leaves an indelible mark. As we explore the landscape of managing and adapting to change through the lens of thought leadership, it becomes clear that these skills aren’t merely desirable—they are essential for charting a course of influence and impact

Change Management and Thought Leadership

John P. Kotter’s Leading Change (2012) proposes an 8-step model organizations can use to navigate and embrace change effectively. By incorporating these strategies, designers and strategists can not only manage change successfully, but also use it as a driving force for innovation. This solidifies their position as thought leaders in their respective industries

  1. Create a Sense of Urgency: Thought leaders in design and strategy recognize the importance of staying informed about emerging trends and market shifts. By maintaining a keen awareness of the evolving landscape, they create a sense of urgency within themselves and their teams. This awareness fuels a proactive approach to change, allowing them to anticipate shifts and seize opportunities ahead of the curve.
  2. Build a Guiding Coalition: Designers and strategists with thought leadership aspirations understand the power of collaboration. They assemble a diverse coalition of individuals with complementary skills and expertise. By bringing together creative minds, strategic thinkers, and specialists, they leverage collective intelligence to effectively respond to change and devise innovative solutions.
  3. Form a Strategic Vision and Initiatives: Thought leaders leverage their deep understanding of the industry’s direction to craft a compelling vision for the future. This vision acts as a guiding star during times of change, inspiring teams to align their efforts and drive innovation in line with the changing landscape.
  4. Enlist a Volunteer Army: Change champions within design and strategy fields enlist the support of like-minded individuals who are passionate about driving change and embracing new opportunities. They inspire and empower these change enthusiasts to lead by example, igniting a ripple effect of positive change throughout the organization or industry.
  5. Enable Action by Removing Barriers: Thought leaders recognize that a nimble response to change requires removing roadblocks and bureaucratic hurdles. By streamlining processes, reallocating resources, and fostering a culture of adaptability, designers and strategists create an environment where innovation can flourish unhindered.
  6. Generate Short-Term Wins: By setting achievable milestones and celebrating incremental successes, thought leaders demonstrate the positive impact of change. These small victories serve as proof points that validate the effectiveness of adapting to new trends and technologies, motivating teams to stay committed to the journey.
  7. Sustain Acceleration: Successful thought leaders maintain their momentum by embedding change into the fabric of their operations. They ensure that new approaches and strategies are not just fleeting fads, but enduring practices that keep the organization agile and responsive to ongoing shifts.
  8. Institute Change: Lastly, thought leaders cement their status by institutionalizing change. They anchor new approaches and practices in the organization’s culture, values, and processes. This integration ensures that the organization remains adaptable and continuously evolves, positioning it as an industry leader.

Building a Supportive Network

The core of impactful thought leadership is a network that goes beyond individual goals and enhances the potential for collective change. Cultivating relationships and adeptly collaborating are key skills that form the foundation of this network, allowing thought leaders to expand their influence, share insights, and mobilize a community that drives their vision forward. Through this exploration, we discover the power of synergy that occurs when thought leaders come together, connect, and unite under a shared purpose, creating a force that transforms industries and shapes progress.

Cultivating Relationships

Cultivating relationships is a critical interpersonal skill that empowers thought leaders to expand their influence, exchange ideas, and foster a community of supporters who amplify their impact. Recognizing that no thought leader operates in isolation, this strategy emphasizes the importance of forging meaningful connections with like-minded individuals who share their passion, vision, and commitment to progress. Here’s how thought leaders can effectively build and nurture a supportive network, consisting of friends, fans, and followers:

Networking is crucial and cannot be underestimated. Thought leaders acknowledge that networking goes beyond just collecting business cards; it involves building meaningful relationships that enhance their understanding, provide differing viewpoints, and offer mutual aid. A robust network provides an avenue for exchanging ideas, collaborating on projects, and accessing opportunities that may not be available otherwise.

Here’s why networking is so crucial for thought leaders:

  • Enriching Knowledge: Networking is a gateway to a treasure trove of insights and information. Thought leaders recognize that every individual they connect with possesses a unique perspective and expertise. Engaging in conversations, sharing experiences, and exchanging ideas within their network exposes them to a diverse range of viewpoints that expand their understanding of their field and its nuances.
  • Gaining Diverse Perspectives: A strong network introduces thought leaders to a tapestry of perspectives from various industries, backgrounds, and geographies. Engaging with individuals who think differently challenges assumptions and broadens horizons, enabling thought leaders to approach challenges and opportunities from multiple angles.
  • Collaboration and Synergy: Collaboration is a cornerstone of thought leadership. A robust network becomes a fertile ground for collaboration, offering opportunities to team up with other experts on joint projects, co-create content, and tackle complex issues together. The synergy of like-minded individuals coming together often generates innovative solutions that wouldn’t be possible in isolation.
  • Access to Resources: Thought leaders understand that their network is a valuable resource pool. Whether seeking advice, recommendations, introductions, or even resources to overcome challenges, the network becomes a reservoir of support that they can tap into.
  • Amplifying Influence and Impact: A strong network amplifies thought leaders’ messages and ideas. The connections they nurture become brand ambassadors, sharing their content, endorsing their expertise, and widening the reach of their influence. This ripple effect multiplies their impact and extends their sphere of influence.
  • Fostering Support and Mentoring: Networking creates a support system where thought leaders can find mentorship, guidance, and encouragement. They can seek advice from those who’ve treaded similar paths, navigate challenges with the support of their network, and be inspired by the achievements of their peers.
  • Access to Opportunities: Networking opens doors to opportunities that might otherwise remain concealed. Thought leaders gain access to speaking engagements, partnerships, collaborations, and even career advancements that stem from connections made within their network.
  • Reputation Enhancement: A strong network contributes to thought leaders’ credibility and reputation. When respected peers and professionals vouch for their expertise and insights, it reinforces their position as a trusted authority within their field.

Strategies for Building a Dedicated Network:

  • Authentic Connection: Authenticity is the cornerstone of building a network. Thought leaders engage in genuine conversations, expressing their passions and viewpoints openly. This attracts individuals who resonate with their ideas and are eager to connect on a deeper level.
  • Active Participation: Engage actively in industry events, conferences, and online forums. Participate in discussions, share your insights, and contribute meaningfully to conversations. This proactive involvement raises your profile and positions you as a valuable contributor.
  • Mutual Value Exchange: Thought leaders approach networking as a two-way street. They offer their expertise, insights, and support to others, fostering a reciprocal environment where value is exchanged freely. This approach encourages others to be invested in your success.
  • Nurturing Relationships: Building a network is not a one-time effort—it requires ongoing relationship building. Thought leaders invest time in nurturing connections, remembering personal details, and staying in touch through regular communication.
  • Leveraging Social Media: Harness the power of social media platforms to connect with a broader audience. Share your insights, engage with your followers, and participate in relevant conversations to expand your network beyond geographical boundaries.
  • Personalized Interactions: Make an effort to personalize your interactions. Address individuals by their names, refer to previous conversations, and show genuine interest in their work and perspectives. This level of attention cultivates stronger, more meaningful relationships.
  • Appreciation and Recognition: Regularly acknowledge and celebrate the contributions of your network members. Express gratitude for their support, share their achievements, and demonstrate your genuine appreciation for their role in your journey.

Collaborating and Scaling Ideas

Thought leaders recognize that while generating groundbreaking concepts is essential, their impact can be greatly amplified when these ideas are collaboratively scaled and replicated. Leveraging a supportive network to foster collaboration accelerates the realization of change and ensures that the transformative power of these ideas reaches a broader audience. Here’s why thought leaders should embrace collaboration to scale their innovative ideas:

  • Amplified Expertise: Collaboration brings together individuals with diverse skill sets and expertise. By tapping into the strengths of others, thought leaders can refine and enrich their innovative ideas, adding layers of depth and effectiveness that might have been otherwise missed.
  • Broader Reach: Collaboration extends the reach of innovative ideas beyond individual spheres of influence. By collaborating with like-minded professionals and influencers, thought leaders tap into their network’s followers and supporters, exponentially increasing the potential audience for their ideas.
  • Validation and Credibility: Collaborating with respected peers lends credibility to innovative ideas. When multiple thought leaders endorse a concept, it reinforces its viability and encourages wider adoption by stakeholders, policymakers, and industry professionals.
  • Ecosystem Building: Collaboration fosters a sense of community and shared purpose among thought leaders and their networks. This ecosystem of support becomes a breeding ground for cross-pollination of ideas, creating a fertile environment for ongoing innovation.
  • Learning and Growth: Collaboration is an opportunity for mutual learning. Engaging with collaborators exposes thought leaders to new perspectives, methodologies, and insights, contributing to their own growth and development as well-rounded leaders.

Working together and expanding ideas is a powerful strategy that emphasizes the transformative impact of collective efforts. Thought Leaders recognize that their innovative ideas are more effective when shared, refined, and put into action with the help of a supportive network. By embracing collaboration, visionaries ensure that their ideas not only bring about change but also have a ripple effect that leads to lasting transformation on a grander scale.

Cultivating Emotional Intelligence

In the intricate tapestry of thought leadership, it’s not just knowledge and skills that illuminate the path to influence. Emotional intelligence emerges as the silent yet commanding force that elevates thought leaders from mere experts to transformative inspirers. Beyond the realm of technical prowess, emotional intelligence is the cornerstone of genuine connection, empathetic leadership, and resilience in the face of adversity. When it comes to influencing decisions that lead to progress, having emotional intelligence can assist thought leaders in developing resilience when dealing with criticism of their ideas.

Receiving feedback without taking things personally, being defensive, or feeling demoralized is not easy; it requires practice and self-awareness. It is a common flaw to find designers that do not react too well to negative criticism, and that is ok for a while. It is expected that over time we all get better at this.

Castro, L. B., Good design feedback does not need to be cruel. (2020)

Still, it is important to acknowledge that we all are humans. There will be moments when a comment hits a nerve, and instinct promptly demands us to retaliate. Sometimes we can contain ourselves, so we do not act on that impulse, some others not so much (Castro, L. B., Good design feedback does not need to be cruel, 2020).

As we delve into the journey toward becoming thought leaders, we must recognize the pivotal role of emotional intelligence in amplifying our influence, forging authentic relationships, enduring criticism, and inspiring lasting change.

Essential Emotional Intelligence Skills and Mindsets for Thought Leaders

When it comes to being a thought leader, it’s not just about having technical knowledge or big ideas. Emotional intelligence is just as important. To be truly effective, thought leaders need to connect with people on a human level. This section will explore the emotional intelligence skills and mindsets that make thought leaders effective in inspiring and guiding others. From the confidence they show to the mindfulness they bring to their work, emotional intelligence is a key part of being an impactful and transformative leader.

  • Confidence. Confidence stands as the bedrock upon which thought leaders stand, allowing them to take risks, embrace vulnerability, and stand firmly behind their ideas. This unwavering self-assuredness not only fuels their visionary pursuits but also inspires those around them to believe in the power of change.
  • Mindful Listening. Thought leaders are not just speakers; they’re listeners. The art of mindful listening enables them to truly hear, understand, and empathize with others. Through attentive engagement, they build bridges of connection that go beyond words, fostering meaningful relationships that underpin their influence.
  • Managing Conflict. As thought leaders, individuals often face criticism, skepticism, and conflicts. Emotional intelligence equips them with the skills to manage such situations gracefully, responding with diplomacy and tact. This ability to handle challenges helps maintain their credibility and professionalism.
  • Dealing with Difficult People. The thought leadership journey is rarely a solitary one, often involving collaborations and interactions with diverse personalities. Thought leaders adeptly navigate these interactions by mastering the skill of dealing with difficult people. They turn challenges into opportunities for growth and transformation, keeping their focus on the bigger picture.
  • Purpose, Meaning, and Passion. Thought leaders are driven not just by knowledge but by a profound sense of purpose, meaning, and passion. These emotions infuse their endeavors with authenticity, inspiring a contagious fervor that motivates others to join their cause.
  • Self-Awareness. Thought leaders possess an acute understanding of themselves – their strengths, weaknesses, triggers, and impact on others. This self-awareness guides their decisions, interactions, and leadership style, fostering an environment of authenticity and growth.
  • Mindfulness. In a world often characterized by haste and distraction, thought leaders stand out for their practice of mindfulness. This ability to be fully present, focused, and aware in every moment enriches their interactions, enhances their decision-making, and bolsters their emotional resilience.

The intricate tapestry of emotional intelligence skills and mindsets forms the heart of thought leadership’s ability to inspire change and drive lasting impact. Thought leaders who cultivate these qualities not only shape industries but also uplift and empower those who journey alongside them.

Comparing and Contrasting Thought Leadership and Other Design and Strategy Skills

In the constantly changing world of leadership, the relationship between thought leadership and other design and strategy skills plays a crucial role in driving innovation, inspiring change, and creating lasting impact. Through our comparative analysis, we will identify the key skills of thought leadership and compare them to the skills necessary for effective strategists.

Thought Leadership versus Design and Strategy Skills

This exploration delves into the various skills that make up a modern leader’s toolkit. It covers everything from decision-making to project management, stakeholder analysis to business-savvy analysis and synthesis. By examining how these skills intersect and differ, we can better understand the art of thought leadership and how it fits into a wider strategic landscape.

Thought leadership SkillsDesign & Strategy Skills
Facilitating Decision MakingThought leadership involves influencing narratives and understanding what needs to be done to drive change.Facilitating decision making requires guiding, coaching, and teaching stakeholders through effective processes to make specific decisions and action plans.
Project ManagementThought leadership emphasizes crafting a clear vision, identifying trends, and aligning efforts to make a significant differenceProject management involves ensuring alignment on strategy, goals, objectives, and deliverables within the scope of responsibility.
Stakeholder Analysis and ManagementThought leadership requires attracting advocates and well-connected supporters to expand influenceStakeholder analysis and management are necessary to handle issues arising from virtual, international projects and establish effective communication channels.
Business-Savvy Analysis and SynthesisThought leadership involves translating insights into terms that business stakeholders understand, aligning teams toward common goals.Business-savvy analysis and synthesis are required for designers to align user problems with stakeholder business strategies.
Comparisons of Thought Leadership and Other Design and Strategy Skills

Thought Leadership and Other Soft Skills

Effective leadership requires a combination of thought leadership skills and other soft skills. These skills are like distinct threads in a tapestry, each contributing unique hues to the overall portrait of leadership. While both skill sets are important for innovation and strategic thinking, they have different nuances in terms of influence, communication, project scope, and emphasis on design thinking. This analysis reveals the duality of leadership, highlighting the balance between artistry and pragmatism in modern leadership.

Thought leadership SkillsSoft Skills
Nature of SkillsThought leadership skills focus on driving change, inspiring others, and positioning oneself as an influencer in a specific domainOther soft skills, such as project management, facilitating decision making, and stakeholder analysis, revolve around effective execution, collaboration, and problem-solving
Influence and CommunicationThought leadership emphasizes influencing narratives and gaining recognition for one’s ideas and accomplishments.Other soft skills, such as stakeholder analysis and management, prioritize effective communication and relationship building with various stakeholders.
Project ScopeThought leadership skills can be applied broadly to create a lasting impact and influence change on a larger scaleOther soft skills, like project management and decision facilitation, are more specific and practical in their application to manage projects and drive organizational success
Focus on DesignThought leadership skills discussed in this blog post have broader applications beyond design, making them relevant to various industries and domains.The softs skills outlined in previous blog posts are specific to design strategists, emphasizing the importance of aligning user problems with stakeholder business strategies
Contrast of Thought Leadership skills and other Soft Skills

Moving Forward on the Path of Thought Leadership

Embracing these specific thought leadership skills will empower designers and strategists to become influential thought leaders who can inspire change, drive innovation, and make a lasting impact in their respective industries or niches. By aligning passion, gaining support, and sharing insights, thought leaders can create transformative ideas that shape the future and leave a positive legacy.

This article has provided you with a comprehensive overview of the essential skills that thought leaders should cultivate, ranging from effective communication and emotional intelligence to managing change and building a supportive network. However, this is just the beginning. In the upcoming articles, we’ll dive deeper into some of these topics, exploring practical strategies, actionable insights, and real-world examples. So, stay tuned for more in-depth discussions on “Mastering Effective Communication,” “Managing and Adapting to Change,” “Building a Supportive Network,” and “Cultivating Emotional Intelligence.”

Recommended Reading

Berkun, S. (2008). Making things happen: Mastering project management. Sebastopol, CA: O’Reilly Media.

Blanchard, K. (2018). “Building Trust” in Leading at a higher level: Blanchard on leadership and creating high performing organizations (Third Edition). Pearson Education.

Brosseau, D. (2014). Ready to be a thought leader?: How to increase your influence, impact, and success (1st ed.). Nashville, TN: John Wiley & Sons.

Bucher, A. (2020). Engaged: Designing for Behavior Change, Rosenfeld Media; 1st edition (March 3, 2020)

Castro, L. B. (2020, October 3). Good design feedback does not need to be cruel. Retrieved August 22, 2023, from UX Collective website:

Craig, W. (2015, June 5). Thought leadership: Why it’s essential to stay up-to-date with your industry. Retrieved August 21, 2023, from Forbes website:

Connor, A., & Irizarry, A. (2015). Discussing Design (1st ed.). Sebastopol, CA: O’Reilly Media.

Courtney, J. (2020). The Workshopper Playbook: How to Become a Problem-Solving and Decision-Making Expert. AJ&Smart

Garrett, J., (2010), “The Elements of User Experience: User-Centered Design for the Web and Beyond, 192 pages, New Riders; 2nd edition (16 Dec. 2010)

George, B., Sims, P., McLean, A. N., & Mayer, D. (2007). Discovering your authentic leadership. Harvard Business Review85(2), 129–130, 132–138, 157.

Hammond, J. S., Keeney, R. L., & Raiffa, H. (2015). Smart choices: A practical guide to making better decisions. Boston, MA: Harvard Business Review Press.

Harvard Business Review. (2017). The Harvard business review manager’s handbook: The 17 skills leaders need to stand out. Boston, MA: Harvard Business Review Press.

Heath, D., & Heath, C. (2009). Made to stick: Why some ideas survive and others die. Random House Trade. 

Lencioni, P. M. (2013). The five dysfunctions of a team, enhanced edition: A leadership fable. London, England: Jossey-Bass.

Maxwell, J. C. (2007). The 21 irrefutable laws of leadership: Follow them and people will follow you. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson.

Maister, D. H., Galford, R., & Green, C. (2001). The trusted advisor. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.

Meyer, E. (2014). The culture map: Breaking through the invisible boundaries of global business. New York, NY: PublicAffairs

Mueller, S., & Dhar, J. (2019). The decision maker’s playbook: 12 Mental tactics for thinking more clearly, navigating uncertainty, and making smarter choices. Harlow, England: FT Publishing International.

Prizeman, T. (2015). The Thought Leadership Manual: How to grab your clients’ attention with powerful ideas. St Albans, England: Panoma Press.

Riel, J., & Martin, R. L. (2017). Creating great choices: A leader’s guide to integrative thinking. Boston, MA: Harvard Business Review Press.

Spetzler, C., Winter, H., & Meyer, J. (2016). Decision quality: Value creation from better business decisions. Nashville, TN: John Wiley & Sons.

Wiseman, L. (2017). Multipliers, revised and updated: How the best leaders make everyone smart. New York, NY: HarperBusiness.

By Itamar Medeiros

Originally from Brazil, Itamar Medeiros currently lives in Germany, where he works as Director of Design Strategy at SAP and lecturer of Project Management for UX at the M.Sc. Usability Engineering at the Rhein-Waal University of Applied Sciences .

Working in the Information Technology industry since 1998, Itamar has helped truly global companies in multiple continents create great user experience through advocating Design and Innovation principles. During his 7 years in China, he promoted the User Experience Design discipline as User Experience Manager at Autodesk and Local Coordinator of the Interaction Design Association (IxDA) in Shanghai.

Itamar holds a MA in Design Practice from Northumbria University (Newcastle, UK), for which he received a Distinction Award for his thesis Creating Innovative Design Software Solutions within Collaborative/Distributed Design Environments.

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