To thrive as a design leader, you need a mix of soft, creative, technical and strategic skills. Explore my top 10 essential skills for design leadership and why soft skills lead the charge.

Whether you lead one person, one hundred, a project, a digital transformation or a rebrand, you can be the best creative with the most technical knowledge and brilliant strategic insights. You're in the wrong job if you lack essential soft skills as a design leader.

Design is rooted in problem-solving. It's a collaborative sport, a dialogue. It requires tuning into different markets, cultures, people, and nuances. You will only produce helpful, functional, innovative designs with the right soft skills in place.

Design leadership is about helping others grow, pushing brands forward, taking the company on a shared design journey, and aligning design and business objectives. You need soft skills to balance this intricate web of interconnectedness.

Let's dive into my top 10 essential skills for great and effective design leadership

You can also use these skills in other leadership positions.

1. Active Listening

Don't listen and faff around with other things. Be present, focus, and truly listen to what people say. Listen to your team, your colleagues, your users, anyone. Active listening is like a muscle you have to train daily. Learning and sticking to is difficult, but you will become more emphatic, efficient, and a better communicator.

2. Communication

It's how well you communicate up, down and across. I swear on macro management (let people do what they do best) and micro communication. Be super clear, ask a million questions, be articulate, provide constructive feedback, be willing to receive feedback and bridge gaps between stakeholders and other departments.

3. Mentor & Coach

You lead people; you design for people. People come first. You provide guidance, support, and development opportunities. You help your team grow professionally and personally, strengthening the entire team and the company. I'm also a big advocate for offering mentoring time outside your role. Turn it around, be a mentee yourself, and seek out fantastic mentors to help you.

4. Empathy

Empathy is crucial for understanding your team's and your users' needs and motivations. You put your ego aside and put yourself in other people's shoes. Empathy creates trust and builds psychological safety. It is a must for building inclusive, supportive, motivated, and collaborative team environments.

5. Strategic thinking

You turn insights into opportunities and those into solutions. You see the bigger picture and understand how design fits broader business objectives. As a design leader, you often face complex challenges that require creative/strategic/business problem-solving. You must understand the whole puzzle.

6. Align design and business needs

You have to communicate the value of the design and its ROI. Dig into the data, the numbers. Align your work with the company's overarching goals. And teach our team how to do the same while staying creative and innovative.

7. Set the vision

Leading design means having a clear vision for the future. You understand current and emerging trends and technologies, anticipate what's next, and know where the brand sits. Your visionary thinking muscle allows you to set a path that inspires and guides your team and takes the entire company on a shared journey across the design vision. Stay curious and foster a culture of learning for yourself and others.

8. Manage

Time, budgets, projects, team, decisions, and high-quality standards. As a design leader, you have a lot on your plate, often simultaneously. Learn how to set boundaries, delegate, organise and plan, maintain high levels of craft, and align everything with the overall vision and objectives.

9. Cross-functional collaboration

Great leaders foster collaboration and involve the right people at the right time. A genuine interest in other people and their work is the magic ticket. Encourage open dialogue and transparency where you can. Leverage your team's and others' diverse skill sets for the best outcomes.

10. Adaptability

You've worked diligently through steps 1-9 — and curve ball. Things can change fast; the design landscape is constantly evolving, and so are companies. Stay on top of tools, technologies and processes. But be adaptable and willing to pivot, re-invent and innovate strategies when required. After all, it's about problem-solving once again.

Woman standing among levitating orange balls in a house made of concrete.

Juggling many things simultaneously is at the heart of design leadership | Both images in this article were created with AI in Leonardo. Prompt: A woman juggling with hundreds of orange balls, a concrete environment, and soft tones. Photoshop: I added one orange ball in front of her face.

Find the essential skills for design leadership that matter to you

Of course, there are heaps more than ten skills to understand. However, focusing on these ten has served me well on my leadership journey and contributed to developing my leadership style.

The list evolves and grows with me. Sometimes, specific points take priority, and others not on the list come into play. It's point 10 all over again.

Knowing what skills matter to you most is important so you can lead authentically by example.

What about you?

I'd love to know which skills define your leadership style and ethos. Which one is at the top of your list? Which ones have stuck with you for your entire leadership career journey?

You can read new posts on my website, find me on Medium and Substack (I meet you where you already are), and connect with me on LinkedIn and Instagram.