Molding Yourself into a Leader, Part 3

Enterprise UX

Designing experiences for people at work

A column by Jonathan Walter
January 6, 2020

In Part 1 of this three-part series, I wrote that the quality of leadership extends to individual contributors and described some behaviors that I have observed in individual contributors who have earned the respect of their superiors and the emulation of their peers. In Part 2, I described additional behaviors that individual contributors who others perceive as leaders consistently exhibit.

Now, in Part 3, I’ll wrap up this series by presenting the following additional behaviors:

  • mastering self-discipline
  • demonstrating self-awareness
  • projecting confidence
  • being humble
  • exuding passion
Champion Advertisement
Continue Reading…

Mastering Self-discipline

“You must be prepared to work always without applause.”—Ernest Hemingway

We sometimes think of leadership in terms of discrete events—often, the bolder, the better. Some conflate these acts of leadership with the types of heroic deeds we see in movies or read about in books. Picture the lone hero charging uphill into battle with a fixed bayonet—an act of heroism that, once he emerges victorious, would be celebrated. Our definition of leadership becomes intertwined with such discrete events as delivering presentations to senior leaders, speaking at conferences, or leading collaborative-design sessions. However, when we take a step back, true leadership looks more like a continuous process than it does a series of discrete events. Leaders lead by evincing consistent, disciplined behavior.

In his Ivy Business Journal article “Learning from Quiet Leaders,” author Joseph Badaracco Jr. states:

“Sometimes small efforts are snowballs that roll down hills and gather force. Sometimes, in situations poised on the knife’s edge, they tip things in the right directions. Sometimes ostensibly small acts influence other people months or even years later—by taking root in their experience, gestating, and shaping their development. And, even when larger consequences do not result from small acts, they matter simply because they are the right thing to do.”

Leaders understand that many of their actions and habits may go unnoticed and won’t be celebrated. However, their unwavering discipline eventually pays dividends when the right opportunity or problem emerges. So what does mastering the self-discipline that befits a leader actually look like? Leaders manifest self-discipline by doing the following:

  • doing the little things right—As Badaracco asserts, small efforts are cumulative and can be like snowballs that grow over time. We are constantly thrust into situations in which we must choose our battles. Seemingly innocuous decisions such as neglecting to have a user-research participant sign a consent form or ignoring obscure accessibility best practices might seem harmless at first, but they can become harmful down the road. Leaders do not skimp on such details for the sake of convenience. They understand that turning a blind eye to harmful actions—or inaction—can damage their company’s reputation later on. After all, skimping on the details once can make it easier to do the same next time, then the next time after that, perpetuating poor quality and potentially unethical practices. A leader habitually does the little things right, understanding that habits have a way of becoming magnified by discrete events that are often stressful to them. In such high-demand moments, the failures of the ill-prepared become obvious, but so do the successes of the well-prepared.
  • being well-organized—Arriving to meetings late or being disorganized disrespects others. We all have our scatterbrained moments—especially in our modern culture of distractions. But time is a valuable currency, and you cannot demonstrate leadership to others—no less succeed in your daily job responsibilities—unless you make a conscious effort to effectively manage your time and schedule. Leaders consistently demonstrate respect for others by being on time to meetings and collaborative activities and giving such engagements their undivided attention.
  • being dependable—We all know people who are immensely talented, but struggle to get out of their own way. They are like lightning in a bottle, showing flashes of brilliance one moment, but ghosting their entire team in the next. We can count on leaders, whose managers know they’ll produce high-quality work, regardless of the type of deliverable or the timeframe in which it is due. Those who lack discipline usually behave inconsistently. They might seek discrete moments in which to demonstrate flashes of their brilliance, but think it’s okay if they disappear completely into the shadows at other times. Colleagues seldom wish to emulate such people. Dependability favors consistency, which fosters predictability. Senior leaders reward disciplined people who can help them reduce risk, which leads to better outcomes.

Demonstrating Self-awareness

In his Smashing Magazine article, “Becoming a UX Leader,” author Christopher Murphy writes:

“[Leaders] tend to have the maturity to have looked themselves in the mirror and identified aspects of their character that they may need to develop if they are to grow as leaders.”

Demonstrating self-awareness requires taking inventory of your skills—particularly your skills gaps. “Having identified their strengths and weaknesses and pinpointing areas for improvement,” continues Murphy, “they will have an idea of what they know and—equally important—what they don’t know.”

Leaders do not shy away from acknowledging what they do not know. As I described in my column, “Navigating Ambiguity,” a UX designer should openly acknowledge his blind spots and avoid pretending to possess knowledge he does not have. Unfortunately, many people mistakenly believe that providing quick, confident answers demonstrates intelligence and skill. Leaders know better, understanding that they cannot grow if they do not embrace those things they consider unknowns—of which they may or may not be aware. Murphy defines two different types of unknowns: known unknowns and unknown unknowns. According to Murphy, known unknowns are: “Skills you know that you don’t know, which you can identify through a self-critical skills audit.” These are the types of blind spots that should be easily identifiable with a modest amount of self-awareness. Unknown unknowns are, according to Murphy: “Skills you don’t know you don’t know, which you can identify through inviting your peers to review your strengths and weaknesses.”

It is how a UX designer addresses unknown unknowns that best demonstrates self-awareness of his abilities and helps establish him as a leader. Inviting peer reviews is a key activity for uncovering growth opportunities. Openly soliciting feedback from our peers, who may have negative things to share, is a clear way of demonstrating self-awareness. Leaders include others in their quest to improve their skills and welcome all feedback—regardless of how difficult it might be to request feedback in the first place. I’ll delve into this more deeply in “Being Humble.”

Projecting Confidence

We often hear about the benefits of saying “No.” Saying “Yes” too often can lead to overwork and burnout, especially if you are agreeing to do the wrong things. However, as I described in my column, “Molding Yourself into a Leader, Part 1,” leaders believe that they can adapt and strive to achieve a growth mindset. So, if the right opportunity comes along, they’ll say “Yes” to that opportunity and project confidence in doing so—even if they’re not feeling overly confident internally.

While I’d contend that the oft-used phrase “Fake it until you make it” oversimplifies stretching oneself and even casts a negative light upon such a mindset—by presuming that people must sacrifice their own authenticity to get ahead—leaders know that they must take chances on themselves because they cannot grow unless they test the limits of their abilities. Leaders believe in themselves or, at least, project that belief to others. If you’ve worked with people who have fixed mindsets, you probably already know how seldom they say “Yes” to additional project work and often fail to recognize opportunistic endeavors because all they see is more work. Are such people leaders?

Guided by their willingness to envision better ways of doing things, leaders see the golden opportunity awaiting them at the end of what they know could be a difficult journey. Focusing on the opportunity, they say “Yes” to the additional work that is necessary to attain it, showing confidence that they’ll figure how to navigate the rugged path that leads to success.

Being Humble

There is a fine line between projecting confidence and exuding arrogance. Leaders show confidence, understanding that arrogant people are seldom those whom others respect or wish to emulate. Demonstrating humility is a desirable behavior. We often laud it, whether we see it in athletics, academics, or professional environments. But what does it actually mean to be humble? What does it look like? In my experience, UX designers who others perceive as leaders demonstrate humility by doing the following:

  • maintaining perspective—If you work for a large, publicly traded company, you probably know that its stock price won’t plummet if you take a sick day to get some much-needed rest or tend to an ill family member. Many large companies are akin to massive machines, industriously chugging along and chewing through time, money, and resources. But too many individual workers inflate their own importance to keeping that machine moving, allowing themselves to believe that something awful might happen if they step off the machine and let themselves be human for just one day. Leaders know that they are human so are subject to falling ill or having bad days. They maintain a realistic perspective, humbly understanding that there are bigger powers that reside outside their control and other stresses in the world that are more deserving of such strong reactions. Even though leaders believe their job is important to their company’s success, they also know that the big machine will keep moving, with or without them. As I described in Part 2, leaders model work-life balance to others, and their humility in recognizing and acknowledging that they are human is a key contributing factor to their meeting their commitments.
  • apologizing when they are in the wrong—In his Psychology Today article “Saying ‘I’m Sorry’,” author Richard B. Joelson, DSW, LCSW, describes a true apology as one that is “designed to help repair both a relationship as well as the reputation of the wrongdoer.” However, according to Joelson, many apologies are misplaced, insincere, or reluctantly delivered. When leaders are in the wrong, they understand the value of a sincere apology to a relationship. They know that apologizing isn’t a sign of weakness; it’s a sign of strength. Nobody is perfect and owning one’s mistakes and acknowledging their impacts on others’ lives demonstrates emotional intelligence and empathy—two traits that a UX designer who wants to become a leader should demonstrate often.
  • giving credit to others where it is due—While leaders may be ambitious, they are team players first and foremost. They understand the power that words of affirmation carry and go out of their way to praise others for their achievements and to reinforce positive behaviors that improve their shared work environment. Moreover, if they’ve collaborated with peers on a project and the design direction the team has chosen was not their idea, leaders are quick to point this out to others. As I described in Part 1, leaders demonstrates integrity by always striving to do the right thing. This includes giving credit where it is due.
  • being teachable—People want to work with others who are willing to set aside their egos and learn new things. While this can be extremely challenging for a seasoned UX designer, who has experience with big projects and has many successes under his belt, there is always room to learn. Often, the best teachers are our juniors or those who are fresh out of college and have different perspectives or new ways of thinking. As I mentioned earlier, leaders embrace a growth mindset, which they manifest by allowing others—whoever they may be—to teach them.
  • staying curious—Once we acknowledge that we do not know everything, a wonderful side effect occurs: we open ourselves to rediscovering awe and inspiration. We manifest curiosity. People who are curious have humbled themselves to their world and the people who reside in it. We all know people who approach their work and life with a jaded outlook, turning a blind eye to the small wonders that occur around them every day. But the humble person pauses, steps back, and welcomes minor flashes of inspiration. He shares such inspirations with others. I’ll explore this further in “Exuding Passion.”
  • asking for help—Admitting that we need help—and asking for it—is one of the most humbling things we can do in our personal and professional lives. Why is it so difficult for most people to ask for help? In her article for Management Today, “Why We Hate Asking for Help—and How to Do It Anyway,” author Heidi Grant offers an explanation: “When you ask for help from someone else, it opens up the possibility that you will experience all kinds of social pain.”

Asking for help essentially means admitting that you do not know something. “Many people at least unconsciously feel that they have lowered their status and invited ridicule or scorn,” says Grant, “particularly when the help request means revealing a lack of knowledge or ability.”

But other people want to help because it feels good to do so. When we ask others for help, we not only demonstrate a willingness to acknowledge our knowledge gaps—an important trait for any leader to possess—we invite them to share our burden. Doing so reinforces their own purpose, as well our relationships with them.

Exuding Passion

As UX designers—especially those of us who are working within large, enterprise environments—we must often be our own biggest supporters. That might mean our evangelizing one another’s work, championing our own craft, or educating colleagues about the field of User Experience. Many of these activities are difficult to accomplish if we do not believe in the work we do.

Think about how many people you know—people who are either leaders or are perceived as leaders—who are apathetic about the impact of their work. Most likely, there aren’t many. People who others perceive as leaders care deeply about their work, and it shows. While we are all human and may experience moments of doubt or disinterest, leaders are generally energized by their work—and their energy is contagious.

Leaders back up their passion and excitement with action. It isn’t enough to peddle the virtues of User Experience to wary constituents—who may not understand its value. We must back up our words with action. Leaders transfer their passion seamlessly into their activities. They confidently project vision to their colleagues, communicate what could be possible, understand that there are already enough people focusing on implementation and delivery, and enthusiastically invite others to help shape their vision, knowing that they’ll rise to the occasion if they encourage them to do so. Leaders’ passion for what they do is always on display and, just as with having a positive attitude, their passion for their work inspires others.


There are many articles about leadership on UXmatters and elsewhere on the Web. Most of them focus on what managers or others who have direct reports do. But the seeds of leadership often germinate within individual contributors. This is especially true in large, enterprise environments where User Experience is immature. UX designers in such environments often lack access to the kinds of formalized leadership-development programs that exist in other, more well-established organizations or departments. As a UX designer, the seeds of leadership might be growing inside you.

In this three-part series, I’ve described some leadership behaviors that I’ve observed in individual contributors. If there are other leadership-quality behaviors that you’ve observed in others or in yourself, please share them in the comments! 

Director of User Experience at Rockwell Automation

Cleveland, Ohio, USA

Jonathan WalterJon has a degree in Visual Communication Design from the University of Dayton, as well as experience in Web development, interaction design, user interface design, user research, and copywriting. He spent eight years at Progressive Insurance, where his design and development skills helped shape the #1 insurance Web site in the country, Jon’s passion for user experience fueled his desire to make it his full-time profession. Jon joined Rockwell Automation in 2013, where he designs software products for some of the most challenging environments in the world. Jon became User Experience Team Lead at Rockwell in 2020, balancing design work with managing a cross-functional team of UX professionals, then became a full-time User Experience Manager in 2021. In 2022, Jon was promoted to Director of User Experience at Rockwell.  Read More

Other Columns by Jonathan Walter

Other Articles on UX Leadership

New on UXmatters