Design leaders today are facing a myriad of complex and interconnected internal and external forces—from an unstable political and economic environment and the impacts of climate change to sea changes in work culture precipitated by the pandemic and a new generation of practitioners who expect greater flexibility and agency.
But to meet the challenge of this moment and work toward a better future, we can’t use the same leadership playbook that got us here in the first place, says Cindy Sanders, president and CEO of OLIN and an adjunct professor of landscape architecture who also teaches in the Weitzman School’s new Executive Program in Design Leadership (XDL). The culture of leadership across sectors has historically been defined by a transactional approach—one that is rooted in power dynamics and whose primary consideration is the bottom line and profitability at all costs.
Earlier in her career, Sanders was looking to advance her own study of leadership and management. She had been thinking deeply about what she describes as a confounding dilemma she saw in her teaching with the Master of Landscape Architecture program at Weitzman. Many of those she considered her most creative and forward-thinking students reported that, upon entering professional practice, they started to feel invisible, as if their ideas and contributions didn’t matter. ‘’These were the ones who were making important and earth-shattering proposals for their studio projects while in graduate school. What happened to those instincts to change the world and what happened to that intellectual bravado?’ says Sanders. ‘Those really smart voices seemed to be subsumed by the status quo of practice.’’
After attending a traditional executive business program focused on leading professional service firms, she still felt like something was missing in helping her to adopt a more authentic and inclusive approach to leadership. “I increasingly believed that knowing more about practice, while important and useful, was not a sufficient way to nurture strong voices, voices that would endure. Better contracts and better construction documents were certainly not a way to bring about urgently needed societal evolution.”
Sanders was able to find the missing piece she was looking for in Transformational Leadership, an approach that centers exploration of an unexpected subject—the ego. “Transformational leadership requires really knowing yourself. To become a great leader, the first act is to transform the self,” says Sanders. “If someone hasn’t wrestled with their being and how they show up in the world, traditional leadership strategies won’t matter.”
For students in the program, this means connecting their personal being with their leadership style through exploratory prompts clarifying their worldview, relationship to fear, examining issues of positionality and privilege, and looking at how to authentically address ethical dilemmas as they arise.
While there are innumerable courses, programs, and books looking at the nuts and bolts of the practice of leadership, Sanders and her colleagues in XDL have designed a program of study that centers the intangible, human-centered elements of practice—something they see as imperative to creating the agents of change the world so desperately needs right now. “There’s a strong bias in transformative leadership to incorporate the head, the heart, and the hunch and realizing that they’re not mutually exclusive. For too long, we’ve relied on head at the exclusion of the others.”
So what does transformational leadership have to do with design? For Sanders, pretty much everything. While moving into a firm-wide leadership role at OLIN, she had to manage her own impulse to try to emulate the leadership style and personality of her predecessor and mentor, Laurie Olin, professor of practice emeritus in the Department of Landscape Architecture at Weitzman. Trying to be a carbon copy of what worked for him, as Sanders puts it, ‘fell flat’, and led to negative thought spirals compounded by the crisis of confidence so many women in the workplace experience in feeling under-acknowledged and undervalued. Sanders was eventually able to gain her footing and find an approach to leading and growing the studio and pursuing impactful work that was completely her own.
That embrace of her unique leadership personality and personal interests had led to new programs within OLIN including the formation of OLIN Labs, a think tank and research experiment within the studio. Sanders sees OLIN Labs as a key example of transformative leadership in action: it’s not a revenue stream for the firm but it’s an integral part of the studio’s culture of innovation. “It’s not something we make money at, but we do it because we think it’s important and we value it and it advances our practice.”
Shaping open work cultures that allow space for a multitude of voices and ideas is directly connected to driving innovation and helping designers deliver their best work. And it is foundational for companies that want to embody—rather than add on—DEI principles at the core of their practice by eroding the dated and patriarchal norms and expectations so many emerging leaders who are women and people of color feel pressure to conform to.
And this leadership approach extends to how Sanders relates to the students in the XDL program at Weitzman. “I want to know who they are, what dilemmas they’re facing, their needs and hopes.” As far as her ultimate intention with XDL? “I aspire to build greater efficacy in designers by developing design leaders with stronger voices capable of meeting the urgent challenges of our times.”
XDL is part of a growing suite of offerings for emerging and established professionals that includes an Executive Program in Design for Social Innovation (XSD) and, later this year, will include an Executive Program in Design for Sustainability (XDS). The Executive Education initiative is led by Weitzman Vice Dean Leslie Hurtig and by Rob Fleming, the School’s director of online innovation.