What I learnt about leadership

Ekaterina Solomeina, Co-Founder of Future London Academy and Curator of the Executive Programme for Design Leaders, shares her journey to finding the true meaning of leadership.

Five years ago, if you’d asked me: ‘What is Leadership?’ I would not have thought twice before answering. To me, successful leaders were commanding and assertive. They were risk-takers, they were charming: the Steve Jobs and the Richard Bransons of this world. This was exactly the kind of leader I wanted to be. I had a great career, I was a Creative Director and I was working with some of the world’s best-known designers, from Michael Wolff to Donatella Versace. On paper, everything was going well for me. But something was missing. 

The more my career progressed, the more I had to start thinking about the kind of leader I wanted to be. And that was when I began to realise that the models of leadership I had always idolised didn’t quite fit. It didn’t feel right to trust only my own opinion, to be single-minded and impose my way of doing things on others. I felt like I was trying to be somebody I wasn’t, and if I didn’t feel comfortable in my own shoes, how was I going to be a leader? 

It was around this time that I started to curate the Executive Programme for Design Leaders with Future London Academy, the equivalent of an MBA for creatives with 15+ years of experience. We were at the beginning of something amazing, creating a course that would teach design leaders the skills required to create, grow, and run design-led businesses. And here I knew I couldn’t miss the opportunity to find the answer to that fundamental question: What Is Design Leadership?

So, I began to gather some of the best leaders in the industry to teach on our course. I was now in the amazing position of learning directly from Marina Willer, Partner at Pentagram, from Bidisha Sinha, Associate Director at Zaha Hadid Architects, among dozens of other industry leaders. And what I learnt completely transformed what I thought I knew about leadership.

Here are just three things I learnt:

1. Divinia Knowles, ex-COO of Mind Candy, was the first person to make me question the assumption I’d always had: that there is one way to lead. Divinia introduced us to the Six Goleman Styles of Leadership: Commanding, Visionary, Democratic, Coaching, Affiliative, and Pacesetting. When I saw this list of six, I quickly realised that I relied a lot on Visionary, followed by Commanding - as this was what I’d seen in the leaders I was surrounded by. And I also thought you needed to choose between being a Democratic Leader or Commanding and stick to your style for the rest of your life.

But from working with Divinia I learnt that a truly effective leader understands that they need to use a combination of all six leadership styles, and that no one style is appropriate to every setting. A good leader can adapt to different styles based on the situation they are in. Most importantly, a good leader tries to identify which styles come least naturally to them, and works to strengthen these weaknesses. 

2. Steve ‘Buzz’ Pearce, SVP Design at Checkout and ex-Skyscanner, shared a career-changing piece of advice: 'get a Coach'. It sounds simple, and part of me was surprised. Surely at a certain point in your career you are too senior and too experienced to be able to benefit from coaching. But I was wrong.

We decided to try Steve’s advice and had Coaches working closely with our cohort throughout the programme, guiding them (and the Future London Academy team) through their leadership journey, and I continued to work one-on-one with a Coach afterwards. The biggest insight from working with a coach for me was around Strengths Profiles.

Our whole team took Strengths Profile assessments, which gave everybody a picture of their own individual strengths and weaknesses. This helped us see which strengths many of us shared, and also the ones we were missing as a team. We now also use Strengths Profiles in hiring, to make sure we have a team with a really broad range of skills.

3. Margaret Ochieng, Organisational Psychologist and founder of Inclusive Village, introduced us to non-Western Models of leadership. For example, in Ubuntu society, leadership is a circle rather than a pyramid. Leadership is no longer a competition to be the first to the top of the pile, but a symbiotic system where everybody works together to contribute to a better life, and to succeed together.

I had not realised until attending her session how closely we base our understanding of leadership on purely Western Models. If you think of the books you’ve read on the topic recently, the majority of them were probably written by Western authors from a certain demographic (usually, white males). But there are dozens of other models that have functioned effectively for centuries around the world, and which we can learn from, if we are willing to be open-minded and question our assumptions.

These were just three things I learnt so far, which already made a massive difference to my leadership approach, and I can’t wait to continue this journey. Most importantly, it is exciting to know that there is no one way to lead and it doesn't matter if you are a geeky introvert or a social butterfly – you can find your way to be a great creative leader, inspire people around you and support them through difficult times.

If my story resonated with you, I would definitely recommend checking Future London Academy’s Executive Programme for Design Leaders to start your journey.


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