Leaders know when to stop talk and take action

The American election row pushes the concept of leadership to its limits. That the fate of such a powerful nation should depend on the infamous chad – that previously unheard of little dimple – puts into question the leadership qualities of the presidential hopefuls. Very little divides Al Gore and George W Bush in the eyes of the voters, but their bloody battle shows the darker side of characters until now portrayed as squeaky clean.

But it’s not just at this elevated level that ideas of leadership are being challenged. The stakeholder society in the information age makes everyone a leader – or does it? Consultancy bosses and creative heads know that however much responsibility a team assumes, someone has to lead, however gently, giving direction, taking the knocks and fronting the business.

For design there is also the bigger leadership debate. The Government’s love affair with “Cool Britannia” was a useful diversion from the issue and a great way of getting valuable air time for design. But that affair has had its day, and while important vestiges remain, such as work to improve design buying in the Civil Service, as a General Election approaches more pressing issues are taxing Government ministers. So where can design look for leadership now – and what form should it take?

These were issues raised this week at a debate organised by the Design Business Association. While speakers Michael Peters, Jon Turner and Gary Lockton might have been expected to trot out case studies on leadership at local level, all three questioned the role of leadership – and current lack of it – in the broader design world. Peters called for a “maverick” group to muscle into Government circles, in the way he and others did when Baroness Thatcher was Prime Minister. Turner called for design “pop stars” to promote the industry to a wider audience, while Lockton looked to the more inclusive approach, as promised by the Design Unity initiative, devised to bring industry bodies closer, but reported to be floundering.

There was a general feeling at the meeting that something should be done, and not necessarily to, or with, existing industry bodies. Design needs strong leadership on two main counts. It needs to raise standards of creative work and business practice, and it needs a clear, unified voice to lobby Government, clients and the public. Feelings are that it currently does neither, despite claims by existing bodies to the contrary.

It is time for the talking to stop and action to take its place. So what form do you think leadership of the industry should take and what should be its mandate? Sharing ideas with us would be a good start.

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