Leadership is a mindset

james helms
6 min readApr 21, 2023


For the past 10 or 20 years, there has been a different kind of discussion about leadership. We’ve heard about things like “having a seat at the table”, “servant leadership”, “leading at scale”, “leading through others.” We’ve heard about leading from the front and leading from behind. We’ve heard about leading with head and with heart. And leading by example.

My own perspective on leadership has evolved — as times change and as the nature of the work to be done has changed. What got me here won’t necessarily get me there. But I’m sure of one thing: your title doesn’t make you a leader, your mindset does.

If you’ve read other perspectives I’ve shared, you know I’m a firm believer in the power of Humility, Curiosity and Bravery. I believe these are effective behaviors both for leading and being led. They have informed my journey both as a designer and as a leader of organizations.

Leaders must be very good at being wrong and learning from it.
We all make decisions every day with imperfect information. We prop the door open a little to retreat from a decision if and when new data becomes available. Flexibility often trumps consistency, in this regard. The skills that pay dividends are: Active listening. Anchoring on decisions informed by data and ethics and emotional opportunity. And clearly communicating any decision to change direction by sharing the context and the rationale.

Do you need to be a VP of Design to flex these skills? Hardly. In fact — the sooner you start practicing these skills, the more impactful your role as an individual contributor will be. This is one of the ways you can lead from anywhere.

Leaders must role model curiosity by getting out of their chair to find out.
As we emerge from the Covid-cocoon, we are ever more appreciative of the value of “being there” — whether as a family member, a tourist or a concert enthusiast. Work is no different. While we’ve proven we can be incredibly productive working from home, we’ve also longed for deeper connections that come from sharing a coffee, a meal, or the occasional conference room. And we also realized that staying in touch with our colleagues, our customers and our business means we needed to get back to the “active curiosity” of going there. To the office. To where our customers are. Or where our community is. Not everyday. But as often as it takes to stay connected to the work and the mission.

Do you need to be a VP of Design to “walk the halls?” Of course not. As an individual contributor, you should be making a conscious effort to plan to “push your chair back” and go find out. Whether that’s walking the halls of your (sometimes very quiet) office, or taking a quick trip to the nearest mall, hospital, bank, etc to reconnect with who you’re really doing this job for: your customers. Observing them in the real world with an open mind. Observing their behavior, or gaining empathy by very intentionally “riding the processes” you have designed on their behalf. Nothing dislodges a creative block like the visceral experience of being with your customers.

Leaders must occasionally stick their necks out and be provocative, both to create air-cover for their team and to test the boundaries of what’s possible.
This is one place where the VP has a particular kind of power and can use it to create space for their team to practice bravery as well. Politics, organizational boundaries, and relationships are the business of influence. The larger the company, the more valuable influence becomes. In order to promote diversity in your team, you must create the safe place for contributors to field diverse perspectives — and then carry those perspectives to the dangerous edges of an organization. Even for a VP of Design, “dangerous thinking” is not without its risks. But that’s the job.

Can you practice this “dangerous thinking” at levels below VP. You can. And you should. Of course, as you explore the boundaries of what’s possible or generally acceptable, it’s important to tread intentionally — and with an experimental mindset — one that starts with hypotheses and is intentional about the role of learning from your missteps.

Perhaps an example here is helpful. For years I worked for small companies where I felt free to walk into the CEO’s office (Tom Hansen at Square one, Owen Hannay at Slingshot, and Calvin Carter at Bottle Rocket all come to mind) and ask them whatever was on my mind. I was fortunate that, in nearly every case, that person was a kindred spirit and an incredibly patient and engaging leader who took my questions seriously, answered them honestly and left me feeling energized. It never occurred to me that that person might circle around and ask my direct manager “Why is James asking this question? Why aren’t you giving him everything he needs to focus on doing his job well?”
When I moved to much larger companies, I realized that this kind of access was a luxury. CEOs of large organizations protect their time differently, and for very good reason: they are responsible for the success of thousands of employees (and a lot of other important decisions) so I had better have a good, tight, crisp reason to ask for their time and attention. How did I realize this? By doing it wrong a few times. In fact, nine years later I continue to feel my way through how to appropriately navigate a larger and more complex company. I’m still learning.

While the occasional misstep can be complicated — even burdensome — it is the nature of the job. Any job. At any level. We learn from our mistakes and we do our best to process our failures and reapply ourselves to driving impact in new and different ways. You don’t need to be a VP to step in it. Or to learn from it. More importantly, I’d argue that being willing to step in it is how I got here in the first place. AND I will always remember how it felt to have the kind of access I had to Tom, Owen and Calvin — and I try to pay that forward with folks that reach out to me. It’s some of the most consistent feedback I get: That I’m an approachable leader. That’s pretty cool.

Leadership is behaviors, not titles
So here’s the thing. As you look around at the folks in your company that have the titles, ask yourself these questions: Which behaviors do you admire? Which ones do you seek to emulate?

Obviously we value leaders who drive impact.
But how they do that is a huge piece of what makes — or breaks them.

In some companies, titles create access. But access is not impact.
As you make your way to the table, don’t forget that your responsibilities elevate considerably. Beyond your function. Beyond your team. Beyond your personal career goals.

The behaviors here include being an effective negotiator: listening to diverse perspectives and lending your own. Seeking to understand and driving clarity with good questions and occasionally challenging people to make their perspective concrete: whiteboards, white papers and prototypes are actually quite effective in pinning down perspectives that seem squishy in discussion.

And of course, as a leader, you have a responsibility for translating the company vision into a discreet set of priorities, ensuring you have the right team to deliver the vision, and establishing clear success criteria to drive accountability.

Want to lead from where you are?
Ask questions that drive clarity.
Set context and share rationale for your decisions.
Demonstrate active curiosity not just by asking questions, but by “going and finding out”
Be curious about systems, not just assignments.
Develop provocative hypotheses — and run experiments to gather information you can use to challenge them.
Build relationships with diverse people, functions and stakeholders.
Practice negotiating —remaining firm, while considering tradeoffs.
Engage your community.
Take responsibility for one thing that isn’t your job.
Help the next person learn what someone taught you.
Walk the halls.
Balance being approachable with the boundaries you need to maintain your well-being and effectiveness.
And create a place that’s fun for others.



james helms

Design Leader, Advisor, Speaker, Student, Advocate, Enabler.