Combining Servant Leadership 2.0, Empathy, and Design Heuristics in High Performance Teams


Brahms’ favorite view from his summer hotel toward the Trisselwand — Altaussee, Styria, Austria

It’s time to put some of the big concepts together and understand how they combine to make high-performance design teams.  So here goes!

Ideally, a design team will have an individual who embodies Servant Leader 2.0 — not just a compelling vision and integral drive toward success, along with an understanding of what makes his or her company money (the ‘Inner Hedgehog’ idea), but also a profound self-awareness that allows them to negotiate effectively with the world outside the design group. Such an individual also understands their personal long-term motivators.  Servant Leader 2.0 makes a commitment toward facilitating the creation of relationships both inside and outside the group that can help both the performance of the design team, as well as the larger community interconnectedness.  He or she models appropriate responsibility-taking (I know how to do that, and I’ll take the lead!) as well as ego suppression. That’s likely as good as it gets.

Add in a design team with members that have the appropriate expertise in the area, a clearly defined design goal, and the tools necessary to understand and capture the physics the group will be dealing with, and you’re halfway there.  Next, create an environment where people can move, unrestricted, in search of knowledge that they need, with the blessings of the leader to create appropriate relationships, and we’re getting closer.  Finish up with a larger group purpose, as well as the time, for individuals in the group to understand that they must also be receptive to helping people seeking knowledge from them — it’s not just about their goals and assignments.

Finally, put both elements together in a design process that has enough flexibility for the creativity required, and enough customer interaction so that there is grounding of the design concepts created by the group.  Make sure everyone in the design team can understand what the goals, and what the process is.

Examining this from an empathetic perspective, Servant Leader 2.0 knows him or herself well enough that they are at the same time, clearly separated from the individual team members, yet connected to all of them with rational empathy.  The Servant Leader 2.0 also starts the process of creating the high performance team by connecting to each individual, and at the same time, starting the process of creating the web of relationships between other individuals on the team.  Some of this is explicit — introductions, shared work tasks and such.  But some is also implicit and opportunistic — making events where people can select partners on their own.  This person also has the sense of inner purpose to not be threatened by strong empathetic relationships being formed within the team, through that independent agency of team members.

Finally, through the assistance of Servant Leader 2.0, everyone on the team takes the long, holistic view — that everyone is here for a purpose, that they can make a difference, yet at the same time all of them will evolve and change.  And the community that is created will persist long after the design goal is reached — for reasons that no one can quite predict.

Takeaways:  Building High Performance design teams takes time.  And it almost always takes someone who serves as the kernel where things grow.  It involves creating appropriate scaffolding, as well as surrendering some level of control.  But the results can be tremendous. 

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