How Creative Leadership Can Thrive in 2018

Debbie Millman is a writer, educator, artist, brand consultant and host of the radio show Design Matters, she’s also a newly appointed ambassador for The REACH Conference, a new creative leadership event that will be held in New York, November 13-14,2017. Well-spoken and intelligent, Debbie’s list of accomplishments are impressive so we sat down with her as part of an interview series we’re building in the coming months in partnership with our client HOW EVENTS, the producers of HOW DESIGN LIVE and creators of The REACH Conference. Here’s what she shared on becoming an effective creative leader in 2018:

What “non-creative” qualities are most important to thrive in your current role?

I don’t think there is such a thing as a “non-creative” skillset. Any behavior or initiative or undertaking can be approached creatively. I try to approach both the things that I make and the things that I manage with creative energy that includes (on my best days, some days it is hard to muster it all) empathy, patience, thoughtfulness, generosity and kindness.

What advice would you give your younger self to accelerate your professional growth?

I would say, do what you love, and don’t stop until you get what you love. Work as hard as you can, imagine immensities, don’t compromise, and don’t waste time. In order to strive for a remarkable life, you have to decide that you want one. Start now.

What are the characteristics of a good leader?

The world is a subjective place. There is no empirical definition of what makes something good; often only the test of time reveals whether it is or isn’t. Like art, opinions on greatness are varied and fierce. By showing a prospective employer and client the benefit you can provide can be far more effective than telling them how, and only a leader can do this with gravitas, panache, and meaning.

The tenet to “lead by example” is the most widely accepted guideline for effective leaders, and it clearly makes sense. But it’s not the only principle worth following. The best definition of leadership I’ve ever read was written by the late great David Foster Wallace, in an essay titled “Suck It Up” from his book Consider the Lobster:

Deep down, you almost always like how a real leader makes you feel, the way you find yourself working harder and pushing yourself and thinking in ways you couldn’t ever get to on your own. In other words — and you have to suck it up and just ignore the clichés here for a second, because these aren’t just words, and there’s important stuff in back of them — in other words, a real leader is somebody who can help us overcome the limitations of our own individual laziness and selfishness and weakness and fear and get us to do better things than we can get ourselves to do on our own.”

In thinking about your own leadership style, consider the following questions:

  1. Are you more interested in being right or doing the right thing?
  2. Can you admit when you are wrong and fight for what you know is right?
  3. Can you take responsibility for your decisions, as tough as they may be?
  4. Do you believe in what you are doing with your whole heart?

What professional development are you working on?

I am always in pursuit of awareness. Self-awareness, awareness of the world, awareness of politics, culture, and innovation.

What qualities do you feel are most important to succeed as a creative leader?

I think we lose our courage to pursue our creative dreams when we feel that the only way we can make a living is to conform. I realize now that making a living doing what you love requires a personal belief that you have something meaningful to contribute. If you are considering settling because going after what you want seems too hard to do, remember that hating what you do every day is even harder. I believe one of the most important skills necessary to succeed as a creative leader is to, at all costs, avoid settling.

What would you consider one of the biggest challenges in the creative leadership role today?

The notion of a “vocation” has changed rapidly over the last two centuries. As recently as 150 years ago, most people didn’t consider happiness or fulfilling their purpose when considering their job. Most people were happy to have paid work in the first place, and they were grateful that they were able to provide for their families.

People hire other people and pay them in order to sell more products, communicate ideas better, move things off of shelves, to write code, to invent and innovate. But when you work for someone — anyone — you are essentially asking him or her to give you money to do that thing.

That thing might be something that you love or went to school for or have deep interest in—or all of the above. To the people who hire you, love and passion have absolutely nothing to do with it. It takes work to get the work you love. It takes knowing how to interview well, how to communicate flawlessly, how to articulate your own purpose and to simultaneously do this while facing tremendous rejection.

What one piece of advice would you give someone new to this role?

Personally, I don’t take rejection particularly well; I tend to take it very personally and get very dejected with myself. This will lead to my wanting to abandon my efforts and to throw in the towel. But then I try to remind myself that I don’t know that anybody that really puts their whole self into something really feels any differently in the face of rejection.

Why would they? Why should they? So my advice is this:

If you want something badly enough in the face of rejection, you must keep persevering. Many, many, many, many people far greater than me have been rejected numerous times and many of those people have ultimately achieved real greatness in spite of (or even because of) the rejection. I don’t think rejection is ever final until you stop trying to succeed.

Want to learn about becoming a better creative leader? Join us along with Jonathan Adler and Gretchen Rubin at The REACH Conference, November 13-14 in New York. Get your tickets here: REACH Conference