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Leading by Listening

The sentence jumped off the screen and grabbed me. Christine Riordan’s blog post on leadership and empathy was highlighting a tension I’ve often felt. Empathy is basic bread butter for all in the design world; while at Dossier, we specifically want to lead well. And yet, depending how you think about these things, each can act against the other.

Let me be clear: it’s good to want to lead well. The ability to keep a client focused and on track, reassuring them in the midst of uncertainty, is often just as valuable for our clients as any design work we undertake. But there’s a fine line between communicating expertise, and needing to be ‘the expert’; between keeping a conversation on track, and ‘directing a conversation’, as mentioned above.


Rather, as Riordan reminds us, “listening is critical to leadership effectiveness.” Put another way, to lead well is precisely to empathize.

1. To be free to follow a conversation wherever it goes can be an act of leadership. 2. To gift a client with silence while they gather their thoughts can be an act of leadership. 3. To respond to what someone actually said, rather than what we formulated as a response before we even sat down, can be an act of leadership.

It seems to me that one of the greatest human needs is not to be right, or to be clever, or to be smart. It is simply this: the need to be heard. And so when the creative process takes us in unexpected directions, we’re free to follow. And the client will come with us, confident that we’ve honoured their intent, even while doing the opposite of what we were asked for.

Written by Ceri Rees, posted by Ronna Chisholm.