Design Strategy Project Management Talks & Workshops

Cultivating Emotional Intelligence for Thought Leadership

Designers and strategists should cultivate a combination of emotional intelligence skills and mindsets that set them apart as influential thought leaders.

In the first post of this series, we’ve talked about some key thought leadership skills that will help designers and strategists influence the decisions that drive their product vision forward. In that post, we mentioned that — in the dynamic landscape of design and strategy — technical expertise alone is no longer the sole ticket to success, and cultivating Emotional Intelligence has emerged as an indispensable cornerstone for those aspiring to be thought leaders in these fields.

This article delves into the pivotal role of emotional intelligence in thought leadership, highlighting how mastering Emotional Intelligence can amplify one’s influence, foster collaboration, and unlock unparalleled creativity. From cultivating confidence and mindful listening to managing change with resilience, we will explore essential emotional intelligence skills that, when honed, pave the way for designers and strategists to excel in their roles, positioning them as thought leaders on the cutting edge of their industries.

If you’re eager to lead not just with technical prowess, but with empathetic and insightful guidance, this exploration of emotional intelligence and its transformative potential is a must-read.


  • Why Emotional Intelligence Matters: Thought leaders need Emotional Intelligence (EI) to connect authentically, drive innovation, and navigate challenges effectively in the dynamic realms of design and strategy.
  • Confidence Building: Emotional Intelligence will help you develop confidence by embracing a growth mindset, a key to articulating and presenting ideas with conviction.
  • Purpose-Driven Approach: Emotional Intelligence will help you align your work with purpose, meaning, and passion to drive thought leadership, an aspect explored in-depth in the forthcoming content.
  • Mindful Listening: Cultivating mindful listening skills will help you deepen relationships and gather diverse perspectives, a vital skill that enables authentic relationships and guides effective leadership.
  • Mindfulness and Self-Awareness: Embrace mindfulness and self-awareness to enhance focus and decision-making, crucial aspects elaborated on in subsequent sections.
  • Handling Difficult Interactions: Master strategies to handle difficult people, maintaining professionalism in challenging situations, as discussed in detail later in this article.
  • Getting Started with Culvating Emotional Intelligence: Begin your emotional intelligence journey by reflecting on your emotions, actions, and interpersonal interactions, paving the way to unlock the power of Emotional Intelligence for thought leadership.

Emotional intelligence (EI) is a pivotal link in the journey towards becoming a thought leader. It goes beyond technical expertise, encompassing the ability to forge deep connections and profoundly influence others. Thought leaders understand that progress is often shaped by the decisions they influence, and in this realm, emotional intelligence becomes an invaluable asset.

To excel in their roles and achieve thought leadership in design and strategy, designers and strategists should cultivate a combination of skills and mindsets that set them apart as influential and innovative leaders. Here are the essential skills and mindsets we will discuss in this post:

  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.

By nurturing these skills and mindsets, designers and strategists can position themselves as influential thought leaders who not only excel in their roles but also contribute to the advancement of their respective industries. Thought leadership is a journey that requires continuous growth, introspection, and a commitment to making a meaningful impact.

Essential Emotional Intelligence Skills

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.


In the business world, confidence is more than just a state of mind—it’s a dynamic force that fuels action, influence, and innovation. It can be defined as the unwavering belief in one’s abilities, ideas, and value within a professional context.

Confidence is an expectation of a positive outcome. It is not a personality trait; it is an assessment of a situation that sparks motivation. If you have confidence, you’re motivated to put in the effort, to invest the time and resources, and to persist in reaching the goal.

Kanter, R. M., Overcome the eight barriers to confidence (2014)

Cultivating confidence equips designers and strategists with the following abilities:

  • Effective Communication: Confidence allows individuals to communicate their ideas clearly and persuasively. They can articulate their viewpoints with conviction, making it more likely for their ideas to be heard and understood.
  • Risk-Taking and Innovation: Confident designers and strategists are more likely to propose innovative solutions and take calculated risks. They are unafraid to challenge the status quo and suggest new approaches that can drive industry advancements.
  • Overcoming Self-Doubt: Confidence helps individuals overcome self-doubt and imposter syndrome. This enables them to present their ideas without the fear of being dismissed or undermined, contributing to their credibility as thought leaders.
  • Building Influence: A confident presence is magnetic. It attracts attention and fosters respect from peers, clients, and stakeholders. Thought leaders exuding confidence are more likely to build a strong following and a loyal audience.

Overcoming Imposter Syndrome

Cultivating confidence in the realms of design and strategy is intrinsically linked to overcoming the feelings of inadequacy that often plague individuals, a phenomenon sometimes termed as impostor syndrome.

Drawing from Andy Molinsky’s insights for Harvard Business Review, the journey toward confidence begins with understanding the benefits of being a novice.

You might not realize it, but there are great benefits to being new in your field. When you are not steeped in the conventional wisdom of a given profession, you can ask questions that haven’t been asked before or approach problems in ways others haven’t thought of

Molinsky, A., Everyone suffers from impostor syndrome — here’s how to handle it (2016)

When designers and strategists, especially those new to a field or role, embrace their status as novices, they unlock the power of a fresh perspective. This perspective allows them to pose unasked questions and approach problems with innovative solutions, unshackled from the constraints of conventional wisdom. Molinsky highlights the advantage of this “outsider’s perspective,” showcasing how it often leads to groundbreaking ideas, reinforcing the idea that being new to a field is not a weakness but a unique strength.

Furthermore, Molinsky encourages a shift in mindset, advocating a focus on what you’re learning rather than on how you’re performing. According to psychologist Carol Dweck, the feelings that impostor syndrome leaves you with are ones we might actually be able to control. With a performance mindset, which people suffering from impostor syndrome often have, you tend to see your feelings of inadequacy or the mistakes you make as evidence of your underlying limitations. This mindset only fuels the concerns you have about being unfit for your job. But there’s something you can work to cultivate instead: a learning mindset (Molinsky, A., Everyone suffers from impostor syndrome — here’s how to handle it, 2016).

By adopting a learning mindset, designers and strategists reframe mistakes and failures as integral parts of the learning journey. In this paradigm, limitations are seen as stepping stones for growth, not as indicators of incompetence. This transition from a performance-oriented mindset to a learning-oriented one is foundational in cultivating confidence. It reframes inadequacy as a natural aspect of growth, empowering individuals to persevere and continuously improve.

Moreover, understanding the power of perspective is pivotal.

Those of us who experience impostor syndrome often feel like we’re the only ones feeling this way, but reality is very different.

Molinsky, A., Everyone suffers from impostor syndrome — here’s how to handle it (2016)

Recognizing that many professionals, even seasoned executives, grapple with similar fears of inadequacy provides solace and normalizes the experience. It underscores that these feelings are part of a shared human experience rather than isolated personal struggles. This understanding helps in breaking the isolating barrier that impostor syndrome often erects, making individuals more willing to seek support and share their concerns with peers.

In the realm of design and strategy, where innovation is paramount, embracing these tips not only fosters confidence but also promotes a culture of continual growth and creative thinking. By perceiving oneself as a valuable outsider with a fresh viewpoint, embracing mistakes as stepping stones to mastery, and acknowledging the universality of self-doubt, designers and strategists can unleash their true potential. The result is a confident, innovative, and empowered professional, unafraid to express their ideas and perspectives boldly in the dynamic and competitive landscape of design and strategy.

The Eight Barriers to Confidence

Rosabeth Moss Kanter, a renowned professor of business at Harvard Business School, underscores the role of confidence in overcoming obstacles and driving change. Her work highlights that confidence is not just about self-assuredness; it’s about having the courage to take risks and challenge the status quo.

It’s not confidence itself that produces success; it’s the investment and the effort. Without enough confidence, it’s too easy to give up prematurely or not get started at all. Hopelessness and despair prevent positive action

Kanter, R. M., Overcome the eight barriers to confidence (2014)

To muster the confidence to work toward your goals, avoid these eight traps (Kanter, R. M., Overcome the eight barriers to confidence, 2014):

  • Self-defeating assumptions. You think you can’t, so you don’t. Talented women sometimes “leave before they leave,” as Sheryl Sandberg puts it, assuming that they won’t be promoted (or succeed when they have children) so they start behaving like they’re departing years before departure, thus foreclosing their options. It’s one thing to be realistic, it’s another to behave like a loser before entering the game.
  • Goals that are too big or too distant. The gap between a giant goal and today’s reality can be depressing and demotivating. Confidence comes from small wins that occur repeatedly, with each small step moving you closer to the big goal. But the small steps must be valued and turned into goals themselves. Winners think small as well as big.
  • Declaring victory too soon. Losing weight can be a challenging task, especially when you fall into the dieter’s dilemma. You start to shed a few pounds and feel great about yourself, but then you reward yourself with a slice of chocolate cake. When the weight comes back, you feel discouraged and indulge in more cake to feel better. Many of us have a favorite college football team that has not won a game in almost a decade. Finally, after winning the first game, the team members feel that the losing streak is over, and they believe they have a good chance of winning the championship. However, in order to achieve this, they must win the next game, which they typically do not manage to do! Step-by-step discipline builds confidence!
  • Do-it-yourself-ing. It’s a trap to think you can go alone, without a support system or supporting others. To build your confidence, think about building the confidence of others and creating a culture in which everyone is more likely to succeed, whether through mentoring them or recognizing their strengths. Giving to others boosts happiness and self-esteem, as numerous research studies show. Supporting them makes it easier to ensure that they support you.
  • Blaming someone else. Confidence rests on taking responsibility for one’s own behavior. Even in difficult circumstances, we have choices about how to respond to adversity. Whining about past harms reduces confidence about future possibilities. When the blame game is carried out within companies, everyone loses confidence, including external stakeholders. Confidence is the art of moving on.
  • Defensiveness. It’s one thing to listen and respond to critics; it’s another to answer them before they’ve done anything. Don’t defend yourself if you’re not being attacked. Apologize for your mistakes, but don’t apologize for who or what you are. Instead, take pride in where you’ve come from and lead with your strengths.
  • Neglecting to anticipate setbacks. Confidence involves a dose of reality. It is not blind optimism, thinking that everything will be fine no matter what. Confidence stems from knowing that there will be mistakes, problems, and small losses en route to big wins. After all, even winning sports teams are often behind at some point in the game. Confidence grows when you look at what can go wrong, think through alternatives, and feel you are prepared for whatever might happen.
  • Over-confidence. Confidence is a sweet spot between despair and arrogance. Don’t let confidence slip over into the arrogant end. Over-confidence is the bane of economies (e.g., the irrational exuberance that preceded the global financial crisis), corrupt leaders (who assume they’re so necessary that they won’t get into trouble for a small expense account fudge), or individuals who swagger and feel entitled to success rather than working for it. Arrogance and complacency lead to neglect of the basics, deaf ears to critics, and blindness to the forces of change — a trap for companies as well as individuals. Sure enough, like the old proverb that “pride goeth before a fall,” the slide into a losing streak often begins with a winning streak. A little humility goes a long way to moderate arrogance and keep just the right amount of confidence.

Designers and strategists need this kind of confidence to propose innovative ideas, challenge conventional thinking, and advocate for novel approaches.

How to Build Confidence

Very few people succeed in business without a degree of confidence. Yet everyone, from young people in their first real jobs to seasoned leaders in the upper ranks of organizations, have moments — or days, months, or even years — when they are unsure of their ability to tackle challenges. No one is immune to these bouts of insecurity at work, but they don’t have to hold you back (Gallo, A., How to build confidence, 2011).

Confidence equals security, and positive emotion equals better performance.

Tony Schwartz’s “The Virtuous Cycle of Confidence” in The Way We’re Working Isn’t Working: The Four Forgotten Needs That Energize Great Performance (2011)

Overcoming this self-doubt starts with honestly assessing your abilities (and your shortcomings) and then getting comfortable enough to capitalize on (and correct) them. Here’s how to do that and get into the virtuous cycle that Schwartz describes (Gallo, A., How to build confidence, 2011):

  • Preparation: Your piano teacher was right: practice does make perfect. If you are unsure about your ability to do something — speak in front of large audience, negotiate with a tough customer — start by trying out the skills in a safe setting. Even people who are confident in their abilities can become more so with better preparation.
  • Get out of your own way: Confident people aren’t only willing to practice but also acknowledge that they don’t — and can’t — know everything. On the flip side, don’t let modesty hold you back. People often get too wrapped up in what others will think to focus on what they have to offer Instead of agonizing about what others might think of you or your work, concentrate on the unique perspective you bring.
  • Get feedback when you need it: While you don’t want to completely rely on others’ opinions to boost your ego, validation can also be very effective in building confidence. Be sure to pick people whose feedback will be entirely truthful; Then, use any genuinely positive commentary you get as a talisman.
  • Take risks: Playing to your strengths is a smart tactic, but not if it means you hesitate to take on new challenges. Many people don’t know what they are capable of until they are truly tested. It feels bad to not be good at something. There’s a leap of faith with getting better at anything,” says Schwartz. But don’t assume you should feel good all the time. In fact, stressing yourself is the only way to grow. Enlisting help from others can make this easier. Asking supervisors to let you experiment with new initiatives or skills when the stakes are relatively low and then to support you as you tackle those challenges.

Purpose, Meaning, and Passion

Purpose, meaning, and passion are integral skills for thought leaders, propelling them toward innovation and impact. Thought leaders align their work with a higher purpose, infusing it with significance to drive transformative contributions. Cultivating a fervor for exploring uncharted territories and pushing boundaries, they channel their passion into nurturing novel ideas. Thought leaders seize every chance to create a positive influence within their field, ensuring that their journey is marked by purpose, fueled by passion, and defined by a commitment to driving lasting change.

Not only in the context of thought leadership, connecting work to a higher purpose becomes the linchpin for driving profound innovation. It’s a fusion of personal values, passion, and a broader mission that elevates an individual’s endeavors from commonplace to extraordinary. Here’s how this connection fuels innovation at a personal level:

  • Intrinsic Motivation and Passion: When a higher purpose that aligns with an individual’s values and aspirations drives the work, it becomes intrinsically motivating. The passion ignited by this connection fuels sustained efforts and a genuine desire to innovate and create a meaningful impact.
  • Unleashing Creative Potential: A higher purpose acts as a catalyst, unlocking an individual’s creative potential. It prompts them to think expansively, explore unconventional solutions, and push beyond their comfort zones. The drive to contribute to a greater cause often leads to the birth of truly groundbreaking and innovative ideas.
  • Resilience and Perseverance: A sense of purpose enhances resilience when facing challenges. When aspiring thought leaders encounter setbacks, the belief in their higher purpose fortifies them to persist, learn from failures, and continue refining their ideas and strategies until they succeed.
  • Inspiring and Attracting Followers: Thought leadership is about influencing and inspiring others. When individuals are connected to a higher purpose, their passion and conviction are palpable. This not only inspires others but also attracts a community of like-minded followers who are drawn to the vision and innovation stemming from this purpose.
  • Measuring Impact and Progress Towards Vision: The alignment with a higher purpose offers a clear benchmark for measuring the impact and progress of personal thought leadership. It enables individuals to evaluate how their innovative ideas and actions are contributing to the greater vision they’ve set forth. This measurement helps adapt strategies and improve the path to the envisioned goal.
  • Long-Term Legacy and Influence: Personal thought leadership driven by a higher purpose leaves a lasting legacy. Through innovation inspired by this purpose, individuals influence their field, inspire future thought leaders, and shape the course of progress and development.

Connecting work to a higher purpose is pivotal for personal thought leaders. It drives intrinsic motivation, creativity, resilience, influence, and a lasting legacy. It propels them to innovate not just for the present, but for a future where their ideas and actions have a profound and enduring impact on their field and the world.

Passion and Internal Awareness

Tasha Eurich highlights the importance of recognizing that there are two distinct types of self-awareness—internal self-awareness (understanding one’s values, passions, and aspirations) and external self-awareness (how others perceive us)—which is crucial.

For designers and strategists, both forms are valuable. Internal self-awareness allows for alignment of personal goals with professional endeavors, while external self-awareness aids in effective collaboration and understanding stakeholder perspectives (Eurich, T., What self-awareness really is, and how to cultivate it, 2018).

We will get back to self-awareness later in this article.

Finding versus Building Purpose

In design and strategy, purpose, meaning, and passion drive innovative thinking and thought leadership. John Coleman’s insightful perspectives for Harvard Business Review shed light on the transformative potential of purpose and debunk common misconceptions surrounding it (You Don’t Find Your Purpose — You Build It, 2017). Understanding and applying these insights can significantly impact how designers and strategists perceive their roles, igniting innovation that stems from a deeply rooted connection to a higher purpose:

  • Building Purpose: Purpose is built, not found. Personal beliefs, values, and aspirations merge with professional endeavors of designers and strategists to craft purpose. This purpose becomes the driving force behind innovations, creating solutions that positively impact communities and industries.
  • Embracing Multiple Sources of Purpose: Designers and strategists draw purpose from personal, professional, and societal aspects of their lives. Acknowledging these diverse sources of purpose frees them from the pressure of finding a singular defining purpose. Passion for their craft, the desire to make an impact, and fulfillment from professional accomplishments drive innovative thinking.
  • Evolving Purpose over Time: As professionals progress, their purpose evolves to align with changing circumstances, experiences, and aspirations. This transformation is driven by the desire to take on new challenges, contribute to emerging trends, or address evolving societal needs. Leaders in design and strategy remain aware of these shifts, allowing their purpose to adapt and drive their innovative pursuits in line with current life circumstances and goals.
  • Aligning Personal Values with Professional Endeavors: Aligning personal values with professional endeavors is a powerful aspect of purpose. When designers and strategists intertwine their values, ethics, and beliefs with their work, they find a deeper sense of purpose. This alignment is a fundamental catalyst for thought leadership, enabling designers and strategists to inspire and drive change driven by their authentic convictions.

From Purpose to Impact

In the world of design and strategy, purpose, meaning, and passion are not just trendy words but the foundational pillars that drive innovative thinking and thought leadership. The concept of connecting one’s work to a higher purpose has gained immense popularity in recent years, and Nick Craig and Scott A. Snook’s insights for Harvard Business Review (From purpose to impact, 2014), shed light on the immense potential of purpose-driven leadership. By understanding and applying these concepts within the context of design and strategy, professionals can significantly impact how they perceive their roles, inspiring innovation and thought leadership that is rooted in a deep connection to a higher purpose.

  • Inspiring Vision: Connecting work to a higher purpose infuses it with a compelling vision that transcends mundane tasks. For designers and strategists, this higher purpose could involve creating solutions that positively impact society, revolutionize industries, or address pressing global challenges. When the work aligns with such a powerful vision, it kindles a passionate aspiration to innovate and lead change.
  • Driving Meaningful Innovation: When personal values are aligned with professional endeavors, the resulting innovation is imbued with authenticity and relevance. Designers and strategists find meaning and fulfillment in creating solutions that resonate with their beliefs and ethics. This intrinsic alignment fuels a desire to innovate with purpose, ensuring that the resultant designs and strategies are functional, deeply meaningful, and impactful.
  • Nurturing Resilience and Perseverance: The awareness of contributing to a higher purpose cultivates resilience and perseverance in designers and strategists. The challenges and obstacles encountered in the journey are viewed through the lens of the larger mission. This broader perspective instills the determination to push through setbacks and obstacles, ultimately driving innovative solutions and paving the way to thought leadership.
  • Amplifying Collective Impact: Aligning personal values with professional endeavors not only elevates individual thought leadership but also amplifies collective impact. Teams and organizations unified by a shared higher purpose channel their efforts toward a common goal. This alignment multiplies the power of innovative thinking, resulting in transformative designs, strategies, and thought leadership that drive progress in the field.

Aligning with your Personal Values

Aligning personal values with professional endeavors is a potent catalyst for inspiring thought leadership, especially in the dynamic domains of design and strategy. When individuals integrate their core beliefs, passions, and ethical principles into their work, it transforms their professional pursuits into a meaningful, purpose-driven mission. In the context of design and strategy, this alignment brings a unique and powerful perspective to the table.

Firstly, it infuses authenticity into their approach. Thought leaders who integrate personal values authentically represent their beliefs in their work, presenting a genuine narrative that resonates with their audience. Authenticity not only garners trust but also showcases a level of sincerity and dedication that inspires others.

Secondly, aligning personal values with professional work inspires passion. Passion is a crucial driver of innovation and creativity, pushing thought leaders to envision beyond conventional boundaries. In design and strategy, this translates to novel solutions, ingenious designs, and breakthrough strategies that challenge the status quo.

Moreover, this alignment elevates the impact of their work. By weaving personal values into design projects or strategic initiatives, thought leaders create solutions that meet functional requirements and address societal, environmental, or ethical concerns. The work becomes a vehicle for positive change, showcasing thought leadership that is rooted in a deeper purpose.

Additionally, it fosters a sense of fulfillment and resilience. When faced with challenges or setbacks, aligning with personal values provides the mental fortitude to persevere. It’s a reminder of the greater purpose, fuelling determination to overcome obstacles and achieve long-term goals.

In conclusion, aligning personal values with professional endeavors is a fundamental principle for inspiring thought leadership in design and strategy. It imbues the work with authenticity, passion, more significant impact, and resilience. Thought leaders who harness this alignment effectively stand at the forefront, not only as experts but as advocates for meaningful change and innovation in their fields.


Self-awareness is the first component of emotional intelligence—which makes sense when one considers that the Delphic oracle gave the advice to “know thyself” thousands of years ago. Self-awareness means having a deep understanding of one’s emotions, strengths, weaknesses, needs, and drives. People with strong self-awareness are neither overly critical nor unrealistically hopeful. Rather, they are honest—with themselves and with others. (Goleman, D., The First Component of Emotional Intelligence, 2018).

In the realm of design and strategy, where continuous improvement and innovation are imperative, self-awareness becomes a powerful tool for designers and strategists to enhance their capabilities and navigate their careers effectively.

When we see ourselves clearly, we are more confident and more creative. We make sounder decisions, build stronger relationships, and communicate more effectively. We’re less likely to lie, cheat, and steal. We are better workers who get more promotions.

Eurich, T., What self-awareness really is, and how to cultivate it (2018)

Tasha Eurich’s insights from her article What self-awareness really is, and how to cultivate it (2018) highlight the nuances of self-awareness. Understanding that true self-awareness is rare emphasizes the need for deliberate efforts to cultivate it.

Self-Awareness and 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.

Strengths, Weaknesses and Triggers

Additionally, Tasha Eurich also highlights the importance of recognizing that there are two distinct types of self-awareness—internal self-awareness (understanding one’s values, passions, and aspirations) and external self-awareness (how others perceive us)—which is crucial. For designers and strategists, both forms are valuable. Internal self-awareness allows for alignment of personal goals with professional endeavors, while external self-awareness aids in effective collaboration and understanding stakeholder perspectives (Eurich, T., What self-awareness really is, and how to cultivate it, 2018).

Let’s look at the role of self-awareness in building important emotional intelligence skills that help designers and strategists become better thought leaders:

  • Understanding Strengths and Weaknesses: Self-awareness enables designers and strategists to recognize and leverage their strengths effectively. By understanding their unique skill sets, creative abilities, and areas of expertise, they can strategically position themselves within their teams or organizations. Simultaneously, self-awareness also allows them to acknowledge their weaknesses and seek opportunities for growth and development.
  • Identifying Triggers: Triggers are situations, events, or individuals that provoke emotional reactions. Self-awareness allows designers and strategists to identify their triggers, whether it’s a high-stress project deadline or a particular type of feedback. Recognizing these triggers helps in developing coping mechanisms, fostering emotional intelligence, and enhancing their ability to respond thoughtfully in challenging circumstances.
  • Enabling Informed Decisions and Growth: Self-awareness empowers designers and strategists to make informed decisions by considering their strengths, weaknesses, values, and long-term objectives. In design critique and feedback sessions, for instance, being self-aware allows them to receive feedback constructively. They can sift through the critique, discerning what aligns with their vision and growth areas, thus refining their work.

In summary, self-awareness is a cornerstone for designers and strategists striving to excel in their roles and evolve as thought leaders. By understanding their strengths, weaknesses, triggers, and recognizing their blind spots, professionals can harness their potential effectively, make informed decisions, and lead with authenticity and clarity. The ability to reflect on their actions, understand how they are perceived by others, and align their actions with their values positions designers and strategists as influential thought leaders in the dynamic landscape of design and strategy.

Dealing with Uncertainty and Ambiguity

In a previous article, I shared that I have spent over 25 years working on innovative projects for well-known companies. During this time, I have observed that people have different abilities to handle uncertainty. Some of my colleagues prefer to have all the information beforehand, while others thrive in situations where things are not entirely clear. Interestingly, individuals who are comfortable dealing with uncertainty tend to be more successful than those who are not.

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

Designers often find themselves with incomplete information about their users, the problem space, and its parameters. We must therefore, be able to deal with Uncertainty and Ambiguity while not being paralyzed by them (Photo by Startup Stock Photos on

Mastering Your Emotions

Thibaut Meurisse’s insights from his book Master Your Emotions shed light on the intricate relationship between emotions, identity, and the power they hold over us. Building upon these ideas, mastering one’s emotions is an essential extension of self-awareness, enabling professionals to grow resilience, confidence, and cultivate stronger relationships, all of which are imperative for thought leadership in design and strategy.

Let’s look at the importance of mastering your emotions in building important emotional intelligence skills that help designers and strategists become better thought leaders:

  • Understanding Emotional Triggers and Ego: Emotions often serve as signals, notifying us that something is amiss or challenging. However, negative emotions, if tied to our identity or ego, can exert a powerful influence over our actions and responses. Recognizing these triggers and understanding that our ego constructs the narrative we tell ourselves is a significant step towards mastering emotions.
  • Step Back from Your Emotions: Meurisse suggests that emotions aren’t the essence of who we are. Designers and strategists can benefit from stepping back from their emotions, viewing them as transient states rather than defining characteristics. This perspective empowers individuals to manage their reactions and decisions more effectively.
  • Building Resilience and Confidence: Mastering emotions contributes to the development of resilience and confidence. Resilience allows professionals to bounce back from setbacks and challenges, while confidence enables them to assert their ideas and perspectives. Both qualities are crucial for thought leaders in the design and strategy domain.
  • Strengthening Relationships: Emotional mastery positively impacts relationships. By understanding and managing one’s emotions, professionals can communicate effectively, empathize with others, and nurture stronger, more collaborative relationships within teams and with stakeholders.

Mastering one’s emotions aligns closely with self-awareness, forming a powerful foundation for thought leadership in the design and strategy sphere. Designers and strategists can enhance their professional capabilities by understanding emotional triggers, stepping back from emotions, building resilience and confidence, and nurturing relationships. Emotionally intelligent professionals can navigate challenges, seek growth, and lead with empathy, ultimately establishing themselves as influential thought leaders, advancing the field of design and strategy through innovation, collaboration, and impactful decision-making.

Building Emotional Agility

Susan David and Christina Congleton coined the term “emotional agility,” overturning the myth that negative thoughts and feelings have no place in the professional sphere. Emotional agility advocates acknowledging and understanding our inner experiences, including doubts and fears. By embracing emotional agility, designers and strategists can elevate their self-awareness, a pivotal aspect of becoming effective thought leaders.

All healthy human beings have an inner stream of thoughts and feelings that include criticism, doubt, and fear. That’s just our minds doing the job they were designed to do: anticipating and solving problems while avoiding potential pitfalls.

David, S., & Congleton, C., Emotional Agility. Harvard Business Review (2013).

Here are some tips to foster emotional agility and nurture self-awareness, which is essential for thought leadership in the design and strategy domain:

  1. Recognize Your Patterns: Understand your recurring emotional patterns and responses to various situations. Recognizing when you’re stuck in a particular emotional loop allows you to consciously initiate change. Awareness of these patterns is the first step towards emotional agility.
  2. Label Your Thoughts and Emotions: Assigning labels to your thoughts and emotions helps in acknowledging them as transient yet valuable pieces of information. View them as data, providing insights into your reactions. This practice helps in understanding and managing your emotional responses effectively.
  3. Accept Them: Embrace your thoughts and emotions with an open attitude. Allow yourself to experience them without judgment. They might be signaling something crucial about your values, fears, or aspirations. Recognize that they are a part of you and deserve attention and understanding.
  4. Act on Your Values: Evaluate your emotional responses and align them with your core values. Consider whether your reactions and decisions resonate with your long-term objectives and the leader you aim to become. Ensure that your actions serve your organization’s goals and uphold your values in the professional landscape.

Emotional agility, rooted in self-awareness, equips designers and strategists to navigate their professions’ complex and often challenging landscape. By acknowledging and embracing their emotions, professionals can harness them as catalysts for growth, resilience, and effective leadership. Cultivating emotional agility fosters a mindful, values-driven approach, enabling designers and strategists to excel in their roles and emerge as influential thought leaders in the dynamic spheres of design and strategy.

Opportunities to Practice Self-Awareness

Now let’s look at some situations where self-awareness is critical to help designers and strategists grow and build the relationships required for them to become better thought leaders:

  • Design Critique and Feedback: During a design critique session, self-aware designers can actively listen to feedback without feeling defensive. When a design concept is critiqued harshly, recognizing the emotional trigger tied to ego can help the designer maintain composure, absorb constructive feedback, and separate it from their self-worth. They can separate their emotional reactions from the constructive criticism, thus utilizing the feedback to enhance their designs.
  • Stressful Project Deadlines: When faced with tight project deadlines and high-pressure situations, self-awareness helps in acknowledging stress triggers. In a high-pressure strategy meeting where differing opinions cause emotional intensity, stepping back from the emotional reactions can aid in responding thoughtfully rather than impulsively, ensuring a productive discussion. Designers and strategists can employ stress management techniques to maintain productivity and creativity amidst the pressure.
  • Cross-functional Collaborations: In cross-functional collaborations, self-awareness aids in understanding diverse perspectives and working effectively with professionals from different backgrounds. It facilitates smoother communication and fosters a collaborative environment. In a team where conflicts arise during project planning, mastering emotions allows for empathetic understanding of team members’ concerns and effective collaboration to find common ground and move forward constructively.

Self-awareness and emotional mastery are essential for success in design and strategy. “Cultivating Curiosity” promotes an inquisitive mindset, allowing for better emotional navigation. “Empowering Growth through Feedback” highlights the transformative benefits of constructive criticism, leading to enhanced self-awareness and thought leadership:

  • Cultivating Curiosity: Self-awareness plays a pivotal role in controlling emotions during high-stress situations, which are abundant in the design and strategy landscape. For example, when gathering feedback from stakeholders or end-users during design validations, designers may encounter strong opinions or resistance. With a heightened sense of self-awareness, they can control emotional reactions, stay open-minded, and cultivate curiosity. This curiosity allows them to dig deeper into feedback, comprehend different perspectives, and extract valuable insights for refining their designs.
  • Empowering Growth through Feedback: Collecting feedback, especially constructive criticism, is fundamental for professional growth. Self-awareness enables designers and strategists to approach feedback with an open mind and an eagerness to learn. By leveraging self-awareness, they can sift through feedback, discern what aligns with their vision and expertise, and assimilate the input that genuinely advances their work and thought leadership.

In conclusion, self-awareness is the compass that guides designers and strategists through the labyrinth of their professional journey. By understanding their strengths, weaknesses, and triggers, they pave the way for informed decisions, emotional control, and a constant drive for improvement. With a heightened sense of self-awareness, professionals can traverse design critiques, reviews, and feedback sessions with resilience and curiosity, propelling them towards thought leadership in the intricate and ever-evolving domains of design and strategy.

Mindful Listening

In the bustling domains of design and strategy, effective communication isn’t merely about transmitting ideas—it’s about truly hearing and understanding others. Mindful Listening, a cornerstone of Emotional Intelligence (EI), encapsulates this art of profound understanding. As emphasized by thought leaders such as Peter Bergman, Jack Zenger, Joseph Folkman, Ramus Hougaard, Jacqueline Carter, Amy Jen Su, and Muriel Maignan Wilkins in their insightful contributions to the Harvard Business Review, mindful listening is more than a passive act; it’s an active and intentional engagement with the speaker and their perspective.

The Art of Listening

In a previous article, I mentioned that effective trusted advisors are (it should be no surprise to designers) very good listeners. Listening is not a sufficient condition by itself, but it is a necessary one, the second step in the Trusted Advisor’s five-state process:

  1. Engage: Let’s talk about…
  2. Listen: Tell me more…
  3. Frame: So the issue is…
  4. Envision: Let’s imagine…
  5. Commit: I suggest we…

Listening is essential to “earn the right” to comment on and be involved in the client’s issues. We must listen effectively, and be perceived to be listening effectively, before we can proceed with any advisory process. Cutting the chase without having earned the right to do so will usually be interpreted as arrogance.

Maister, D. H., Galford, R., & Green, C. “The Art of Listening” in The trusted advisor, (2021)

A trusted advisor might say, “What I like about your idea is X; now help me understand how we can use it to accomplish Y.” Through such language, the advisor constantly lets the client know that the client is respected and that the two of them are free to discuss with remarkable candor the specific merits of the idea at hand.

Building Trust by Being Authentic

In any working relationship, trust is essential. And when you are working with difficult people — in particular — it is most likely that trust has already been impaired, and the relationship has to be rebuilt Trust is achieved not only by what we communicate but also by how we communicate (Kindersley, D. The Book of Management, 2010):

  • Communicating with Authenticity. To build trust, your communication should be authentic at all times. Be genuinely interested in what the other person is saying and listen attentively. When you speak, make sure that you are clear and purposeful, and that you say what you mean. Avoid vague and ambiguous language. Ask questions to understand better, and not just to challenge. When engaged in an interaction, ask yourself if you are communicating with authenticity. This will make you understand what might be missing and allow you to make the necessary adjustments.
  • Being Consistent. Another aspect of building trust through communication is ensuring that your non-verbal cues are consistent with your verbal ones. Imagine telling someone you are interested in what they have to say, and then checking your e-mail when they are talking to you. This sends out an inconsistent message and undermines trust. When you engage with another person make sure your non-verbal cues send the right message. Lean forward and make eye contact. Show them you care with your body language and tone of voice. Being consistent means that your actions and your words must be consistent over time.
  • Take Concerns Seriously. When you are working with difficult people, their perception will most likely be that you are trying to impose your interests at the expense of theirs. They will feel threatened and will not trust you. To build trust you need to change that perception. In order to achieve this you need to set a positive tone. You have to indicate that the other person’s concerns are important to you and that you wish to work to protect not just your interests but theirs too. You could say, for example, to someone who feels threatened by you: “We have had our differences, perhaps, but this relationship is important to me. I would like to reconcile our interests and to do that I would really like to know more about what you truly care about.”. By saying so you have set a positive tone and started to change the other person’s untrusting perception.
group of people sitting in front of table

Strategy and Stakeholder Management

Learn more about the skills required for design strategists to influence influence the decisions that drive design vision forward in Strategy and Stakeholder Management (Photo by Rebrand Cities on

When applied to client interactions, mindful listening becomes a potent tool for grasping their unique needs and aspirations. Each client brings a distinctive vision, and by actively listening to their objectives, concerns, and aspirations, designers and strategists gain crucial insights. Drawing from these insights, professionals can tailor their approach, crafting solutions that precisely align with the client’s vision. Understanding the client’s perspective not only enhances the quality of deliverables but also solidifies the relationship based on trust and client-centric solutions.

Managing Conflict and Challenges

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.

Conflict and Negotiation

No matter what kind of organization, team structure, or project types you’ve worked on, you’ve probably had experienced problems working with teams, such as:

  • drifting focus
  • misunderstood communications
  • uneven participation
  • Conflict
  • struggles for power and control
  • difficulties reaching consensus
  • frustrations with obtaining commitment to follow up action.

This is not by ill-intent: Patrick Lencioni posits that making a team high-performing – i.e., high-functioning, collaborative, cohesive, aspiring, engaging – requires self-discipline, courage, and stamina (Lencioni, P. M., Overcoming the five dysfunctions of a team, 2011).

In a previous post, I argued that teams fall into all kinds of traps while collaborating. It’s been my experience that — left to chance — it’s only natural that teams will stray from vision and goals. Helping teams paddle in the same direction requires not only good vision and goals, but also leadership, and intentional facilitation.

Facilitation is a deceptively familiar word, because it sounds like something you know, but means different things in different workplaces. For the purposes of this conversation, a definition of facilitation consists of two things (Hoffman, K. M.,  Meeting Design: For Managers, Makers, and Everyone, 2018):

  • Facilitation is an explicitly designated role for managing conflict. That role is filled by a single individual, or multiple individuals when you have multiple small groups, with each group having its own facilitator.
  • Facilitators create a productive pattern of conversation, built on divergence and convergence. This pattern encourages tangents, but also manages tangents to direct the conversation toward decisions.
photo of people near wooden table

Strategy and the Need for Facilitation

Learn more about how to become a skilled facilitator (Photo by fauxels on

In another post, I also mentioned that — in a collaborative environment — Design is a process of negotiating among disciplines. Solutions are not only based on purely technical problem-solving criteria. They also result from compromises between designers: solutions are negotiated (Bucciarelli, 1988). Therefore, it is important to establish common ground and negotiation mechanisms in order to manage the integration of multiple perspectives in design (Détienne, 2006).

Given the collaboration required to generate shared understandingconflicts can emerge from disagreements between designers and other stakeholders about proposed designs. Hence, a critical element of collaborative design is to manage the detected conflicts and particularly the impacts once they are resolved (Ouertani, 2008).

The key to creating successful working relationship is the ability to deal with differences. Imposing your will seldom produces results. Knowing how to negotiate effectively will help you cultivate strong working relationships, even with difficult workers.

Kindersley, D. The Book of Management (2010)

I’ve noticed in my own experience — but also observing how junior designers conduct themselves — that we usually tend to bargain over positions (e.g., “from a user experience perspective, this works best because….”), thinking that if we bring enough knowledge to the table or make strong enough arguments, designers would convince the team about the way to move forward. This idea of Bargaining over Positions (through persuasion) comes with shortcomings that we are – more often than not – not even aware of since most of us were not trained with the emotional intelligence it takes to deal with conflict in a healthy way.

We can only change two things: our own minds and our own behavior.

Benson, B., Why Are We Yelling?: The Art of Productive Disagreement (2019)

Another challenge that arises while negotiating comes from the fact that the way most negotiation strategies fail because they start arguing over positions (Fisher, R., & Ury, W., Getting to Yes: Negotiating an agreement without giving in, 2012):

  • Arguing over positions produces unwise outcomes: we tend to lock ourselves in those positions. The more you clarify your position and defend it against attacks, the more committed you become to it. The more you try to convince “the other side” of the impossibility of changing your position, the more difficult it becomes to do so.
  • Arguing over positions endangers an ongoing relationship: positional bargaining becomes a contest of will. Each side tries through sheer willpower to force the other to change its position. Anger and resentment often results as one side sees itself bending to the rigid will of the other while its own legitimate concerns go undressed. Positional bargaining thus strains and sometimes shatters the relationship between the parties.
  • Where there are many parties, positional bargaining is even worse: although it is convenient to discuss in terms of two persons, you and the “other side”, in fact, almost every negotiation involves more than two persons. The more people involved in the negotiation, the more serious the drawbacks of positional bargaining.
  • Being nice is no answer: many people recognise the high costs of hard positional bargaining, particularly on the parties and their relationship. They hope to avoid them by following a more gentle style of negotiation. Instead of seeing the other side as adversaries, they prefer to see them as friends. Rather than emphasising a goal of victory, they emphasise the necessity of reaching agreement. In a soft negotiating game the standard move are to make offers and concessions, to trust the other side, to be friendly, and to yield as necessary to avoid confrontation. Pursuing a soft and friendly form of positional bargaining makes you vulnerable to someone who plays a hard game.

When faced with a position, do not counter with your own position. Rather, find out why that position is important to the other side and what needs of theirs would be met were that position accepted. This helps uncover their true needs, as opposed to negotiating over positions.

Kindersley, D. The Book of Management (2010)
Conflict Management Styles” in Organizational Behavior and Human Relations
William Ury's 'The walk from
Watch William Ury’s The walk from “no” to “yes” talk at TED

One approach to get more constructive conflict handling is to change the game from arguing over positions to negotiating on merits (Fisher, R., & Ury, W., Getting to Yes: Negotiating an agreement without giving in, 2012):

  • Principled: participants are problem-solvers whose goal is a wise outcomes reached efficiently and amicable.
  • Separate the people from the problem: be soft on the people, hard on the problem; proceed independent of trust
  • Focus on interests, not positions: explore interests, avoid having a bottom line.
  • Invent options for mutual gain: generate alternatives to choose from; decide later.
  • Insist on using objective criteria: try to reach a result based on stands independent of will; reason and be open to reason; yield to principle, not pressure.
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

The Inevitability of Conflict

Let’s not sugar-coat it: even among the best teams, conflict is always at least a little uncomfortable. No matter how clear everyone is that the conflict they are engaging is focused on issues — not personalities — it is inevitable that they will feel under some degree of personal attack (Lencioni, P. M., “Overcoming Dysfunction #2” in Overcoming the five dysfunctions of a team, 2010).

But there’s no reason to avoid conflict. In fact, if team members are not making one another uncomfortable sometimes, if they’re never pounding one another outside their emotional comfort zones during discussions, then it is extremely likely that they’re not making the best decisions for the organization.

Lencioni, P. M., “Overcoming Dysfunction #2” in Overcoming the five dysfunctions of a team, 2010

When Lencioni talks about conflict on a team, he is talking about productive, ideological conflict: passionate, unfiltered debate around issues of importance to the team. Any team that wants to maximise its effectiveness needs to learn to do this, and doing so can only happen if vulnerability-based trust exists (Lencioni, P. M., The five dysfunctions of a team, 2013). We will come back to trust later.

Conflict is natural to organizations and can never be completely eliminated. If not managed properly, conflict can be dysfunctional and lead to undesirable consequences, such as hostility, lack of cooperation, and even violence. When managed effectively, conflict can stimulate creativity, innovation, and change.

Kindersley, D. The Book of Management (2010)

While conflict is natural, we need to step up to the plate with a non-judgemental attitude towards our team, always expecting the best and –– in a counter intuitive way –– not anticipate conflicts.

To accept conflict as part of working on a team, we must acknowledge that (Lencioni, P. M., “Overcoming Dysfunction #2” in Overcoming the five dysfunctions of a team, 2010):

  • Good conflict among team members requires trust, which is all about engaging in unfiltered, passionate debate around issues.
  • Even among the best teams, conflict will at times be uncomfortable.
  • Conflict norms — though they will vary from team to team — must be discussed and made clear among the team.
  • The fear of occasional personal conflict should not deter a team from having regular, productive debate.

Conflict Resolution

If I can be very upfront with you, I’m no expert on conflict resolution! Being born in Brazil comes with all the stereotypes of a relaxed culture, being extroverted and expressive, passionate and emotional. Still, I’d say that — in general — we tend to avoid conflict (and avoid dealing with it). So when conflict arises, and we don’t deal with it, we end up bottling it up, and you guess where that can lead us!

So what comes next is some best practices I have been trying to incorporate into my practice; some of them are neither intuitive nor easy to implement, but they should — at least — get some great conversations going in your team.

Conflict Resolution through Rituals

Conflicts are an inevitable part of work life-as are failures. Both can bring intense emotions and possibly destroy relationships. Rituals can be strategies to navigate conflicts, to manage anger and frustration, and to move toward a more constructive relationship. Ideally, they can structure spaces for more candid, transparent communication and personal resilience to deal with mistakes. Here are a few rituals that help address conflicts (Ozenc, K., & Hagan, M., Rituals for work, 2019):

  • Burn the Argument: is a ritual to move people past a conflict that flared up. After a conflict has arisen among team members, have them release their emotional energy by symbolically burning their feelings. Instead of hoping that the people will be able to move on after the argument have them explicitly write down what they were arguing about, and what their feelings are. Make sure that they hear each other’s point of view. That have them put these written-down accounts and emotions into a shredder or have them tear them up. They combine both of their scraps together, and burn them in a heatproof container.
  • Elephant, Dead, Fish, Vomit: When you want to encourage reciprocal, honest conversations among team members across an organization, try the ritual Elephant, Dead Fish, Vomit. This is a way to interrupt a meeting that doesn’t seem to be “honest” enough, and to structure a conversation to deal with issues that people cannot seem to get over, or that they’re struggling to express to each other Anyone can say the phrase “Elephant, dead fish, and vomit.” Then everyone in the meeting gets permission to speak their mind in a safe environment, about big things in the room that are not being addressed (elephants); about things that are long past but still haunting the group (dead fish); and about things people just need to vent out without real goals (vomit).

Conflict Resolution through Clarity 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 the 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 — it 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)

To make sure I’m understood — 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 yawn. That’s because vision 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)

The beauty of a shared vision is that it motivates and unites people: it acts as the product’s true north, facilitates collaboration, and provides continuity in an ever-changing world (Kouzes, J. M., & Posner, B. Z.,  Leadership Challenge: How to Make Extraordinary Things Happen in Organizations, 2017).

Shared vision creates the common language that helps you work together.

Govella, A., Collaborative Product Design (2019)

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 creating product vision in The Importance of Vision (Photo by Pixabay on

Conflict Resolution through Clarity of Priorities

What slows progress and wastes the most time on projects is confusion about what the goals are or which things should come before which other things. Many miscommunications and missteps happen because person A assumed one priority (make it faster), and person B assumed another (make it more stable). This is true for programmers, testers, marketers, and entire teams of people. If these conflicts can be avoided, more time can be spent actually progressing toward the project goals (Berkun, S., Making things happen: Mastering project management, 2008).

Unfortunately, this sense of priorities might not always be clear with teams, either because leaders have not defined priorities, or priorities have not be clearly communicated.

A few reasons why not every leader practices prioritizing (Maxwell, J. C., The 21 irrefutable laws of leadership: Follow them and people will follow you, 2007):

  • When we are busy, we naturally believe that we are achieving. Activity is not necessarily accomplishment.
  • Prioritizing requires leaders to continually think ahead, to know what is important, to know what’s next, to see how everything relates to the overall vision.
  • Prioritizing causes us to do things that are at the least uncomfortable and sometimes downright painful.

Leaders understand that Activity is not necessarily Accomplishment.

“Law of Priorities” in The 21 irrefutable laws of leadership: Follow them and people will follow you , Maxwell, J. C. (2007).

The goal with prioritization is to determine what to complete next in order to get maximum value in the shortest amount of time and to avoid multi-tasking due to competing priorities (DeGrandis, D., Making work visible: Exposing time theft to optimize workflow, 2017).

Priorities Make Things Happen.

Berkun, S., Making things happen: Mastering project management (2008)

There are a few things you should ask yourself and/or the team when we keep coming revisiting and renegotiating the scope of work (DeGrandis, D., Making work visible: Exposing time theft to optimize workflow, 2017):

  • What is your prioritisation policy and how is it visualised? How does each and every item of work that has prioritised helps get us closer to our vision and achieve our goals?
  • How will you signal when work has been prioritised and is ready to be worked on? In other words — where is your line of commitment? How do people know which work to pull?
  • How will we visually distinguish between higher priorities and lower priority work?

If you have priorities in place, you can always ask questions in any discussion that reframe the argument around a more useful primary consideration. This refreshes everyone’s sense of what success is, visibly dividing the universe into two piles: things that are important and things that are nice, but not important. Here are some sample questions (Berkun, S., Making things happen: Mastering project management, 2008):

  • What problem are we trying to solve?
  • If there are multiple problems, which one is most important?
  • How does this problem relate to or impact our goals?
  • What is the simplest way to fix this that will allow us to meet our goals?
pen calendar to do checklist

Strategy and Prioritization

Learn more about Prioritisation in Strategy and Prioritisation (Photo by Breakingpic on

Conflict Resolution and Difficult Conversations

We all know this. We go round and round on the same questions—Should I raise this? Or should I keep it to myself? Why is it so difficult to decide whether to avoid or to confront? Because at some level we know the truth (Patton, B., Stone, D., & Heen, S., Difficult conversations: How to discuss what matters most, 2011):

  • If we try to avoid the problem, we’ll feel taken advantage of, our feelings will fester! We’ll wonder why we don’t stick up to ourselves, and we’ll rob the other person the opportunity to improve things.
  • But if we confront the problem, things might get even worse. We may be rejected or attacked; we might hurt the other person in ways we didn’t intend; and the relationship might suffer.

While conflict is natural, we need to step up to the plate with a non-judgemental attitude towards our team, always expecting the best and –– in a counter intuitive way –– not anticipate conflicts.

Someone who anticipates conflict in meetings is the most likely person to initiate the conflict which they expect.

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

Each difficult conversation is really three conversations (Patton, B., Stone, D., & Heen, S., Difficult conversations: How to discuss what matters most, 2011):

  1. The “What Happened?” Conversation. Most difficult conversation involve disagreement about what has happened or what should happen. What said what and who did what? Who’s right, who meant what, who’s to blame?
  2. The Feelings Conversation. Every difficult conversation also asks and answer questions about feelings. Are my feelings valid? Appropriate? Should I acknowledge or deny them? Put them on the table or check them at the door? What do I do about the other person’s feelings? What if they are angry or hurt?
  3. The Identity Conversation. This is the conversation we each have with ourselves about what this situation means to us. We conduct an internal debate over whether this means we are competent or incompetent, a good person or bad, worthy of love or unlovable. What impact might it have on our self-image and self-esteem, or future and our well-being? Our answers to these questions determine in large part whether we feel “balanced” during the conversation, or we feel off-center and anxious.

Every difficult conversation involves grappling with these Three Conversations, so engaging successfully requires learning to operate effectively in each of the three realms. Managing all three simultaneously may seem hard, but it’s easier than facing the consequences of engaging difficult conversation blindly (Patton, B., Stone, D., & Heen, S., Difficult conversations: How to discuss what matters most, 2011).

Confrontational versus Avoids Confrontation

Some cultures embrace confrontation while others avoid it. This scale looks a lot like the scale showing the directness of negative feedback, though with some differences, such as Sweden being further to the left (direct) on negative feedback and further to the right (avoiding confrontation) on disagreeing (Meyer, E., The Culture Map, 2014)

Disagreeing: Confrontational versus Avoids Confrontation (Meyer, E., The Culture Map, 2014)

Avoid Verbal Conflict

Heated conversations or situations tend to bring out the worst in people. Whether that means taking over a conversation, raising voices, cutting others off, or simply re-stating ideas as their own. There are a lot of things that people can do—intentionally or unintentionally—to make others more angry or upset. So when you step into a forum that feels heated, keep yourself in check. You never want to be seen as the person who can’t keep their cool (Harned, B., Project Management for Humans, 2017).

That said, there is nothing worse than being cut off—or flat out ignored—when you’re trying to make a point. Check out these quick tips to make sure that you can stand your ground on the meeting or debate battlefield (Harned, B., Project Management for Humans, 2017):

  • Set expectations with the room at the top of the meeting. Simply say, “I know this conversation is a big one, and we all have things to say. Let’s please show each other respect and not step on each others’ toes. We’ll all have time to make our points.” This will hopefully put some people on notice and allow others to get a word in.
  • Set expectations again when you’re about to make your point (particularly if it’s a long one). Start off by saying, “I have a few things to say, so please give me the time to make my point. I am more than open to your ideas, but I just want to be sure I can state my thoughts in full.”
  • If you’re really intent on making a point, keep talking. Sometimes someone needs to be talked over to understand that what they are doing is rude. Or maybe you’ll stop briefly and say, “Sorry, I am not done. Let me finish.” You’ll know what works when you’re in the moment—you just can’t be bashful.
  • Let’s say you let that person talk over you. Hear them out. Understand what they are saying and use that information to ask them questions, or even make or strengthen your own point. When you are polite and it shows, you win, no matter what. Why is that? People will be more inclined to work with you, listen to you, and show you the respect you deserve. Meeting room bullies never get that respect.
  • Be ready to give in. Sometimes these arguments are not worth battling over. You can always follow up with someone separately to express your concerns or share more ideas in full. True professionals can sense when the time and place are right, so use that instinct here.

Avoid Blaming

Blaming the other person or party is not the way to resolve conflict. You need to avoid confronting the person or party and instead apply the ActionFellingImpact and Request (AFIR) Model (Kindersley, D. The Book of Management, 2010):

  • Reframing the problem. When dealing with a difficult colleague it is crucial that you choose a process which encourages dialog and joint problem-solving. You can do this by reframing the problem. Suppose a co-worker is not returning your phone calls. You could either blame him by saying: “he never returns my phone calls”, or you could reframe the problem: “When my calls are not returned I feel anxious as I am unable to get the information I need”. Instead of looking to blame someone, focus on what is happening, the impact it has, and what is actually needed (For more on reframing, check out Problem Reframing for Strategic Design).
  • Preparing the message. To prepare a non-confrontational essay you need to ask the AFIR questions: What is happening? (Action), how do I feel about it? (Feeling), what impact is this having? (Impact), and, what would I like? (Request). For example, a co-worker seems to be constantly declining your meeting requests. You decide to confront them. First ask yourself the four questions: What is happening? (You co-worker is never available when needed.) How do you feel about it (Frustrated.) What impact it is having? (You cannot get feedback on the project.) What would you like? (Regular feedback on the project.) By breaking the message into AFIR steps, you have moved from assigning blame to a more productive view of the problem and its solution (check the image below for more examples).
  • Transmitting the message. To reframe the message, put the four elements in this format: “When… (put in action), I feel… (put in feeling) because… (put in impact). Would you be willing to… (put in request)?”. For example: “When you are unavailable I feel frustrated because I cannot get the feedback I need. Would you be willing to talk about a set that we could meet once a week?”
Action, Feeling, Impact and Request (AFIR) Model
Always use the AFIR Model to reframe blame, even if the other party really is at fault. You will get a lot further in engaging them in problem-solving because they will not feel the need to defend themselves (Kindersley, D. The Book of Management, 2010).

The AFIR model is a great way to avoid blaming others, but one thing I learned after living and working in transcultural environments (did I mention I was born in Brazil, lived in the USA for a while, worked in China for eight years, then moved to Germany in 2012?) is that people underestimate how the way we say things in one culture might be perceived as passive-agressiveness (or sometimes straight out aggressive) in other cultures. That’s why we will talk about Non-Violent Communication coming up.

There is No Way Around Difficult Conversations

Face it: no one likes a difficult conversation. But if you’re managing people, you will have to face them head-on. Follow this advice to ensure that you’re handling them well (Harned, B., Project Management for Humans, 2017):

  • Be sure to understand the issue first and set your personal feelings aside.
  • Have empathy for the people involved and do what you can to understand their points of view.
  • Think through the outcomes of the conversation before conducting it.
  • Respect privacy and preserve the personal relationships.
  • Use thoughtful language.
  • Have a follow-up plan for your meeting.

Breaking Impasse

When parties in conflict dig in heir heels over their demand, impasse can develop rapidly. It taks skill, patience, and persistence to guide the negotiation back towards resolutions while maintaining the relationship. Reframing and questioning are good tools to break impasse (Kindersley, D. The Book of Management, 2010):

  • Reframing: Impasse is reached when people are inflexible. If someone presents a rigid position to you, do not counter with an equally regime position, but reframe the position in question. For example, a customer might say: “we do not trust you to deliver the product on time”. Respond with the reframing technique by saying: “So you like the product and terms, but would like assurance of timely delivery?” You have translated their rigid declarations into a flexible statement of need, and vetted potential impasse (For more on reframing, check out Problem Reframing for Strategic Design).
  • Questioning: Impasse can also be reached when solutions are proposed too early. The more information you obtain about the other side’s concerns and needs, the better equipped you are to offer solutions. Question and probe to loosen their positions and understand their needs and concerns better. If — for example — they say the slides will not be ready on time for the meeting, rather than insisting, ask (non-threatening) questions such as: “what is preventing you from having them ready on time?” By getting more information you can think of possible solutions, and steer clear of impasse (For more on questioning, check out The Art of Asking Questions).
black and white people bar men

Project Management, Negotiation and Conflict Resolution

Conflict arises in every team. Psychological Safety and Conflict Resolution techniques can help turn this conflict into productive interactions, constructive disagreements, and open idea exchange, learning from different perspectives. (Photo by Gratisography on

Dealing with Difficult People

Do you have someone at work who consistently triggers you? Doesn’t listen? Takes credit for work you’ve done? Wastes your time with trivial issues? Acts like a know-it-all? Can only talk about himself? Constantly criticizes?

Our core emotional need is to feel valued and valuable. When we don’t, it’s deeply unsettling, a challenge to our sense of equilibrium, security, and well-being. At the most primal level, it can feel like a threat to our very survival.

Schwartz, T., The secret to dealing with difficult people: It’s about you (2011)

Dealing with difficult people is a vital skill for thought leaders, empowering them to navigate complex interactions effectively. This skill entails developing robust interpersonal abilities to handle challenging situations deftly. Thought leaders also cultivate emotional resilience, allowing them to manage criticism and disagreements with grace and composure. Embracing a solution-focused mindset, they prioritize collaboration over conflict, steering discussions toward productive outcomes. By mastering this skill, thought leaders ensure that their interactions remain constructive and contribute to their broader positive influence and change mission.

Strategies for Managing Interactions

When it comes to thought leadership, it’s important to know how to handle difficult individuals. These individuals may include skeptics, critics, or those who are not open to change or collaboration. How thought leaders manage interactions with them can have a significant impact on how their ideas are received and how they are perceived. To navigate such interactions effectively, here are some strategies:

  • Practice Empathy and Active Listening: Empathy allows thought leaders to understand the concerns and perspectives of difficult individuals. Actively listening to their viewpoints without interruption demonstrates respect, potentially defusing tension and fostering a more constructive dialogue.
  • Stay Calm and Composed: Difficult interactions can sometimes become emotionally charged. It’s crucial for thought leaders to remain calm and composed, responding to challenges with rationality and reason rather than reacting impulsively. This showcases maturity and professionalism.
  • Choose the Right Battles: Not every disagreement needs to escalate. Thought leaders should discern when to engage in a conversation and when to let go. Focusing on meaningful discussions that align with their mission and goals is key to preserving energy and momentum.
  • Seek Common Ground: Finding shared objectives or values can bridge gaps in understanding. Thought leaders should emphasize commonalities and work towards collaborative solutions, demonstrating that we can achieve a collective vision together despite differences.
  • Set Boundaries Firmly and Respectfully: Difficult individuals may push boundaries. Thought leaders need to set clear, respectful limits on unacceptable behavior. Firmly communicate these boundaries, reinforcing a professional and respectful interaction.
  • Acknowledge and Address Concerns: Difficult individuals often harbor genuine concerns or fears. Thought leaders should acknowledge these concerns, validating them as valid perspectives. Addressing these concerns directly demonstrates thoughtfulness and a genuine commitment to resolution.
  • Focus on Solutions, Not Blame: Shifting the conversation from blame to solutions is pivotal. Thought leaders should steer discussions towards finding actionable solutions that benefit all parties involved. This redirects the energy towards constructive problem-solving.
  • Incorporate Mediation if Necessary: If conflicts persist, involving a neutral mediator can be beneficial. This third-party facilitator can help guide discussions and find middle ground, promoting a more productive interaction and potential resolution.
  • Reflect and Learn: Thought leaders should reflect on the encounter after challenging interactions. What went well? What could be improved? Learning from these experiences can refine strategies for dealing with difficult individuals in the future.

By employing these strategies, thought leaders can navigate challenging interactions with finesse, preserve their reputation, promote constructive dialogue, and uphold the values of their thought leadership. It’s not just about managing difficult individuals; it’s about transforming these situations into opportunities for growth and enhanced influence.


Mindfulness, defined as a state of “nonjudgmental, moment-to-moment awareness,” has garnered attention across various domains, including psychology, healthcare, neuroscience, and the arts (Henriksen, D., Richardson, C., & Shackc, K., Mindfulness and creativity: Implications for thinking and learning, 2020). In the context of design and strategy, mindfulness emerges as a potent tool, offering a multitude of benefits that empower individuals on their journey towards thought leadership.

Cultivating Clarity and Creativity

Mindfulness, a state of present-moment awareness, holds immense significance for thought leaders, especially in the domains of design and strategy. It serves as a foundational practice for cultivating clarity and enhancing creativity, essential elements for success in thought leadership. Here’s how mindfulness contributes to reducing stress and fostering creativity:

  • Stress Reduction and Well-being: The role of a thought leader can be demanding and stressful. Mindfulness provides tools to manage this stress. By being present in the moment and letting go of future anxieties or past regrets, thought leaders can reduce stress levels. This, in turn, enhances their overall well-being, enabling them to think and lead more effectively.
  • Enhanced Focus and Attention: Mindfulness practices often involve focusing on a particular object, sensation, or breath. Over time, this enhances concentration and attention span. For thought leaders engrossed in complex projects, this heightened focus is invaluable, allowing them to delve deep into their work and generate innovative ideas.
  • Encourages Open-Mindedness and Innovation: Mindfulness fosters an open-minded approach, where thought leaders become more receptive to diverse ideas and perspectives. In design and strategy, this is crucial as innovation often stems from the amalgamation of different viewpoints. Mindfulness cultivates an environment where new, unconventional solutions can flourish.
  • Stimulates Creativity and Ideation: The practice of mindfulness encourages a playful and exploratory mindset. By silencing the inner critic and allowing thoughts to flow freely, thought leaders can tap into their creative potential. This results in a more prolific generation of novel ideas, which is particularly vital in the creative domains of design and strategy.
  • Improved Decision-making: Mindfulness contributes to better decision-making by promoting a thoughtful pause before acting. It allows thought leaders to consider various aspects of a situation, leading to more well-rounded and informed decisions. This is paramount in strategy, where choices often have long-term implications.
  • Strengthened Emotional Intelligence: Mindfulness is deeply rooted in understanding one’s emotions and thoughts. As thought leaders enhance their emotional intelligence through mindfulness, they become better equipped to navigate their own and others’ emotions, resulting in improved relationships, collaboration, and effective leadership.
  • Promotes resilience in the Face of Challenges: The practice of mindfulness fosters resilience, enabling thought leaders to bounce back from setbacks and challenges. This mental resilience is vital in the dynamic fields of design and strategy, where unforeseen obstacles are common.

Incorporating mindfulness practices into daily routines can significantly benefit thought leaders in design and strategy. By reducing stress, enhancing creativity, sharpening focus, and promoting innovation, mindfulness becomes a pivotal tool for thought leaders striving to make a lasting impact in their respective fields.

Mindfulness for Improved Focus and Strategic Thinking

Practicing mindfulness is a skill that can be honed with dedication and consistent effort. When applied to the domains of thought leadership, design, and strategy, mindfulness can significantly enhance focus and strategic thinking.

Integrating mindfulness practices in preparation for critical thought leadership events can significantly enhance your performance and impact:

  • Embracing the Present Moment: Imagine a designer engrossed in a project, deadlines looming large. Through mindfulness, they shift their focus to the present moment, fully immersing themselves in the design process. This heightened awareness allows them to notice subtleties they might have overlooked, sparking innovative ideas and enhancing the overall quality of their work.
  • Non-judgmental Analysis: A strategist, facing a complex problem, practices mindfulness. They observe their thoughts without labeling them as ‘good’ or ‘bad.’ This non-judgmental stance helps in approaching the problem from multiple angles, unburdened by biases. Consequently, they devise a strategic plan that encompasses diverse perspectives, ensuring a well-rounded and effective solution.

General Mindfulness Tips for Strategic Design

Here are some tips for practicing mindfulness to improve focus, enable strategic thinking, and prepare for significant events like public speaking or design critiques in the context of thought leadership, design, and strategy:

  • Daily Meditation Practice: Dedicate time each day for meditation, even if it’s just for a few minutes. Sit in a quiet space, focus on your breath, and gently redirect your attention if your mind starts to wander. This daily ritual enhances focus and clarity, which is crucial for strategic thinking.
  • Mindful Breathing Before Strategizing: Before diving into strategic planning or problem-solving sessions, take a few moments for mindful breathing. Inhale deeply, hold for a few counts, and exhale slowly. This helps in calming the mind and sharpening focus for the task ahead.
  • Mindful Observation of Design Elements: Before a design critique, practice mindful observation of the design elements you’ll be presenting. Pay attention to details, color schemes, user experiences, and the message you intend to convey. Mindful observation enhances your understanding and articulation during the critique.
  • Sensory Awareness Breaks: Incorporate short sensory awareness breaks during your workday. Close your eyes, focus on your senses (sight, hearing, touch, taste, smell), and observe without judgment. These breaks rejuvenate your mind and enhance creativity, essential for effective thought leadership.

Opportunities to Practice Mindfulness

Mindfulness helps leaders gather their thoughts, manage anxieties, and align intentions with actions. By practicing mindfulness before critical events, thought leaders can communicate their ideas gracefully and clearly, adapt to unexpected situations, and amplify their effectiveness and influence. Here are some tips for practicing mindfulness before critical thought leadership:

  • Pre-Presentation Mindful Breathing: Prior to a public speaking event or a persuasive presentation, practice mindful breathing. Inhale deeply, hold briefly, and exhale slowly. This centers your energy, reduces anxiety, and prepares you to communicate your message effectively.
  • Visualization with Mindfulness: Before the event, engage in mindful visualization. Imagine yourself presenting confidently, engaging your audience, and addressing potential challenges gracefully. This visualization builds confidence and mental readiness for the actual event.
  • Mindful Review of Key Points: Before a critical presentation, review the key points mindfully. Reflect on how these points align with your overall message and the impact they aim to create. This ensures that your presentation is coherent, impactful, and strategic.
  • Mindful Reflection Post-Event: After a critical event, take time to mindfully reflect on your performance. Acknowledge what went well, areas for improvement, and the lessons learned. This reflective practice enhances your preparation for future events.
  • Mindful Gratitude for Feedback: Be open to feedback after a design critique or presentation. Practice mindful gratitude for the insights shared, regardless of whether they were positive or constructive. This mindset fosters continuous improvement and growth as a thought leader.

Applying mindfulness in preparation for critical events enhances your ability to stay focused, think strategically, and navigate challenges with a clear mind. It equips you to communicate your thoughts and ideas effectively, ensuring that your impact as a thought leader is both meaningful and lasting.

Nurturing Emotional Intelligence for Thought Leadership

In the dynamic realms of design and strategy, evolving into a thought leader necessitates more than just technical skills—it requires a profound understanding and mastery of emotional intelligence. Emotional intelligence, comprising confidence, mindful listening, dealing with difficult people, purpose-driven passion, self-awareness, and mindfulness, emerges as the cornerstone for achieving this coveted status.

Next steps in cultivating Emotional Intelligence:

  1. Commit to Growth: Embrace emotional intelligence as an ongoing journey. Commit to continuous growth and improvement by dedicating time and effort to develop each facet of emotional intelligence.
  2. Invest in Learning: Explore books, articles, workshops, and online courses that delve deeper into emotional intelligence, featuring insights from experts. Leverage reputable resources to expand your knowledge and refine your skills.
  3. Practice Mindfulness Daily: Incorporate mindfulness practices into your daily routine. Cultivate the habit of being present, attentive, and non-judgmental. Consistent mindfulness helps manage stress, enhance creativity, and make more strategic decisions.
  4. Engage in Purposeful Reflection: Take time for introspection, reflecting on your actions, reactions, and emotions. Understand the motives behind your behaviors and identify areas for improvement.
  5. Connect with Mentors: Seek mentorship from individuals experienced in emotional intelligence. Their guidance and wisdom can accelerate your journey toward mastering emotional intelligence and becoming a thought leader.

By consistently honing emotional intelligence skills, you enhance your ability to navigate complex relationships, foster innovation, and establish yourself as a thought leader in the competitive landscape of design and strategy. Remember, thought leadership isn’t just about what you know; it’s about how you lead, inspire, and relate to others—making emotional intelligence an indispensable tool on your path to influence and impact.

Other Skills for Aspiring Thought Leaders

As I mentioned in the first post of this series, great ideas are not enough to be a successful thought leader. Skills that amplify their impact are crucial. Aspiring leaders must develop exceptional abilities, such as effective communication and emotional intelligence, to transform their vision into tangible results. Check out the other articles of this series to learn about the crucial skills that will have designers and strategists influence the decisions that drive product experience visions forward:

  • 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 that resonate 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 [read more about Presentation and Storytelling Skills].
  • 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 [read more about Innovative Thinking and Idea Generation].
  • 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 [read more about Demonstrating Expertise and Credibility].
  • 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 [read more about Managing and Adapting to Change].
  • 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 [read more about Building a Supportive Network].
  • 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.

Reading Recommendation

Benson, B. (2019),  Why Are We Yelling?: The Art of Productive Disagreement. Portfolio; Illustrated Edition.

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

Brown, B. (2018). Dare to lead: Brave work. Tough conversations. Whole hearts. London, England: Vermilion.

Bucciarelli, L. (1988). Engineering design process. In F. Dubinskas, Making Time: Ethnographies of High-Technology Organizations (pp. 92–122). Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press

Clark, T. R. (2020). The 4 stages of psychological safety: Defining the path to inclusion and innovation. Richmond, BC, Canada:

Coleman, J. (2017, October 20). You don’t find your purpose — you build it. Harvard Business Review.

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

Craig, N., & Snook, S. A. (2014, May 1). From purpose to impact. Harvard Business Review.

David, S., & Congleton, C. (2013). Emotional Agility. Harvard Business Review, November 2013 issue.

DeGrandis, D. (2017). Making work visible: Exposing time theft to optimize workflow. Portland, OR: IT Revolution Press.

Détienne, F. (2006). Collaborative design: Managing task interdependencies and multiple perspectives. Interacting with Computers (18), 1–20

Edmondson, A. C. (2018). The fearless organization: Creating psychological safety in the workplace for learning, innovation, and growth. Nashville, TN: John Wiley & Sons.

Eurich, T. (2018, January 4). What self-awareness really is (and how to cultivate it). Harvard Business Review.

Fish, L., Kiekbusch, S., (2020), “The State of the Designer” in The Designer’s Guide to Product Vision, 288 pages, New Riders; 1st edition (August 2, 2020)

Fisher, R., & Ury, W. (2012). Getting to Yes: Negotiating an agreement without giving in (3rd ed.). London, England: Random House Business Books.

Furr, N. (2022). The upside of uncertainty: A guide to finding possibility in the unknown. Harvard Business Review Press.

Gallo, A. (2011). How to build confidence. Harvard Business Review.

Goleman, D. (2018), “The First Component of Emotional Intelligence” in Self-awareness (HBR emotional intelligence series). Harvard Business Review Press.

Govella, A. (2019). Collaborative Product Design: Help any team build a better experience. Sebastopol, CA: O’Reilly Media.

Gray, D. (2016). Liminal thinking: Create the change you want by changing the way you think. Rosenfeld Media.

Greever, T. (2020). Articulating Design Decisions (2nd edition). Sebastopol, CA: O’Reilly Media.

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

Harned, B. (2017). Project Management for Humans: Helping People Get Things Done (1st edition). Brooklyn, New York USA: Rosenfeld Media.

Harvard Business Review. (2016). Virtual Collaboration (HBR 20-Minute Manager Series). Harvard Business Review Press.

Henriksen, D., Richardson, C., & Shackc, K. (2020). Mindfulness and creativity: Implications for thinking and learning. Thinking Skills and Creativity, Volume 37 (100689).

Hoffman, K. M. (2018). Meeting Design: For Managers, Makers, and Everyone. Two Waves Books.

Kalbach, J. (2020), “Mapping Experiences: A Guide to Creating Value through Journeys, Blueprints, and Diagrams“, O’Reilly Media; 2nd edition.

Kalbach, J. (2020). Jobs to be Done Playbook (1st Edition). Two Waves Books.

Kanter, R. M. (2014). Overcome the eight barriers to confidence. Harvard Business Review.

Kindersley, D. (2010). The Book of Management: Great Britain: DK.

Kouzes, J. M., & Posner, B. Z., (2017), Leadership Challenge: How to Make Extraordinary Things Happen in Organizations, Jossey-Bass; 6th edition (April 17, 2017)

Krogerus, M., & Tschappeler, R. (2018). The communication book: 44 Ideas for better conversations every day. London, England: Portfolio Penguin.

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

Lencioni, P. M. (2010). Overcoming the five dysfunctions of a team: A field guide for leaders, managers, and facilitators (1st ed.). Pages 19-24. London, England: Jossey-Bass.

Maister, D. H., Galford, R., & Green, C. (2021). The trusted advisor. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.

Mastrogiacomo, S., Osterwalder, A., Smith, A., & Papadakos, T. (2021). High-impact tools for teams: 5 Tools to align team members, build trust, and get results fast. Nashville, TN: John Wiley & Sons.

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

Meurisse, T. (2018). Master your emotions: A practical guide to overcome negativity and better manage your feelings. Independently Published.

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

Molinsky, A. (2016). Everyone suffers from impostor syndrome — here’s how to handle it. Harvard Business Review.

Ouertani, M. (2008). Supporting conflict management in collaborative design: An approach to assess engineering change impacts. Computers in Industry (59), 882–893.

Ozenc, K., & Hagan, M. (2019). Rituals for work: 50 Ways to create engagement, shared purpose, and a culture that can adapt to change. Nashville, TN: John Wiley & Sons.

Patton, B., Stone, D., & Heen, S. (2011). Difficult conversations: How to discuss what matters most. London, England: Portfolio Penguin.

Podeswa, H. (2021). The Agile Guide to Business Analysis and Planning: From Strategic Plan to Continuous Value Delivery. Boston, MA: Addison Wesley.

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

Rogers, P., & Blenko, M. (2006). Who has the D? How clear decision roles enhance organizational performance. Harvard Business Review84(1), 52–61, 131.

Rudolfsson, F. (2017). How to create a learning organization. Retrieved December 23, 2021, from NCAB Group website:

Schwartz, T., Gomes, J., & McCarthy, C. (2011). The Way We’re Working Isn’t Working: The Four Forgotten Needs That Energize Great Performance. Free Press.

Schwartz, T. (2011). The secret to dealing with difficult people: It’s about you. Harvard Business Review.

Small, A., & Schmutte, K. (2022). Navigating ambiguity: Creating opportunity in a world of unknowns. Ten Speed Press.

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

Torres, T. (2021). Continuous Discovery Habits: Discover Products that Create Customer Value and Business Value. Product Talk LLC.

Ulwick, A. (2005). What customers want: Using outcome-driven innovation to create breakthrough products and services. Montigny-le-Bretonneux, France: McGraw-Hill.

Van Der Pijl, P., Lokitz, J., & Solomon, L. K. (2016). Design a better business: New tools, skills, and mindset for strategy and innovation. Nashville, TN: John Wiley & Sons.

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

Zook, C., & Allen, J. (2012). Repeatability: build enduring businesses for a world of constant change. Boston, Mass.: Harvard Business Review Press.

By Itamar Medeiros

Originally from Brazil, Itamar Medeiros currently lives in Germany, where he works as VP 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.

One reply on “Cultivating Emotional Intelligence for Thought Leadership”

[…] 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 {read more about Cultivating Emotional Intelligence Skills}. […]

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.