Re-Design Leadership as A Platform?
Exploring the future of creative leadership at independent and boutique business setting
(a reflective literature on Leadership Design based on the interviews for my research project at Master of Design Futures at RMIT, semester 2, 2020)
When we talk about leadership in the context of general theories on organizational culture, we often talk about the managerial functions, a relatively ideal portrait or charisma of it. In unprecedented times that we are currently experiencing, leadership seems to have appeared in the center of attention as it is steering the ways to solve the wicked problems along the evolving situations. That fundamentally relates to our next shift into the future at all levels, from government systems, corporate organizations to individual teamworks as well as daily life within our local communities.
As we pave our ways through the chaos and strive to transform to an unknown yet arguably better future, exploring new possibles of leadership becomes an urgent, crucial, and at the same time, an ever-challenging task for creative practitioners across professional sectors and industries. “Very little is entirely new under the sun, but to be creative is to learn to see how apparently unlikely elements might fit together in a fruitful new arrangement.” (Creativity in The Meaning of Life, The School of Life)
In this research, I choose to focus on contemporary entrepreneurs at independent boutique business, who put creativity and quality at the core. Like the major companies and larger organizations, such businesses share general matters in common practically on leadership development, and the diversity that brings a rich and textured flavor into the research findings. Compared to the complexity of the former, the latter I believe, is more exciting to get a much closer look into their personalities, stories untold or landscapes unseen, given the independence and transparency of their business setting and cultural identity.
Through the lens of design thinking, I try to capture the following aspects of leadership projected on contemporary entrepreneurs at independent boutique business:
Art = essence of business aesthetics;
Craft = professional skill-sets & qualifications;
Sports = acts, especially the surviving mode during the pandemic.
From there, I start a course of questioning the relevancy between design thinking/human-centered design principles and their day to day practices in various realities, and constantly testing the initial concept of re-designing leadership as a platform in their individual cultural contexts.
By conducting a series of qualitative interviews with business owners, brand founders and core team leaders and sourcing data from such storytellers in published literatures, the research looks for traits of design thinking in these thought leaderships from the earlier stage of their business establishments, key milestones along their journey, recent problem solving to respond to and recover from COVID-19 as well as the roadmap towards the future.
The primary targets are candidates from hospitality industry, including chef/restauranteurs and speciality coffee business owners who are dedicated to a critically human-centered service area as the loci of the research. Other key storytellers and opinion leaders include the founders of boutique fashion brand, senior management of business consultancy specialized in a clientele of independent restaurants and senior editors at independent publishing.
Geographically, using an urban backdrop at metropolitans as a benchmark, the research has so far rolled out more than 10 cities across Asia, North America, Europe and Oceania.
While the pandemic and traumatic events are hitting, not only the economic system, but the entire society dramatically fast and globally, business, despite of what sizes and marketplaces they are, are in this together through changes, with a reinforced sense of community and needs of partnerships and collaborations. I hope, by taking this particular cross-cultural approach, to explore how might we rethink and rebuild leadership, turning it not only more creative, but also actionable, sustainable, adaptable and ubiquitous towards the future full of uncertainties and opportunities.
Finding essence of business aesthetics
Art - life-centered design
As I look into the essence of business aesthetics from the foundations at the very beginning, I’m fascinated to see that these entrepreneurs all had a moment of clarity at heart to put happiness before success, lifestyle than business, sustainability on top of profitability, community over company as they perceived the business concept.
The ideation of the business is based on a crystal clear human-centered desirability = what they found from expansive life experiences of themselves and a potential niche market, which in most of the cases, developed from the neighborhood, the community they spent years to live, to familiarize with and to study on purpose. The grass-rooted market research early stage, no matter the actual length of time and scale it cost, paid extremely detailed attentions, meticulous observations and reflections on human interactions.
Nakamura Keita, co-founder of Oyamazaki Coffee Roasters in Kyoto, Japan once coined his business philosophy as “post-capitalism” in his essay. He imagined the business concept out of the purpose of he and his wife that is to facilitate their basic needs and a healthy lifestyle away from main-stream and capitalism. After college year and a prolific career in leading business consultancy, they relocated from Tokyo to Kyoto where they, after thoughtful research and considerations, believe could make speciality coffee business, their preferred option as a form of the “post-capitalism” business possible and sustainable. Eight years later they became one of the most reputed brands in specialty coffee roasters in Japan, deeply connected with a contemporary artisan community around their roastery and home, as well as their peers and younger followers nationwide whom they are open to offer advices. Remaining as a brand and a business by two of them, the company has well established four business units: Manufacturing (as a roaster), Wholesale (B2B), eCommerce (online orders both to B and to C) and Retail experience (in-store sales of beans only and occasional pop-ups at local events). They call it a complete model and finalized scale and have no intention to further expand as it serves the original business purpose properly. What they have experimented, if seen from Abraham Maslow’s Pyramid of Needs, is actually to design a business model to achieve the higher level of needs, which many conventional companies and business ruled by capitalism can hardly fulfill. This has been found as a common business desire in other stories too, which eventually form their leadership values happiness and life-centered too. What they build around the business is consistent with what they see also make their team believe in and feel happy in a larger picture, the vision of life. They hold respect, appreciation and gratitude of other people very high, including internal staffs, customers, collaborators and the community. Life-centered here concerns the life cycle of the business itself and the sustainability of the environment which such leaderships always prioritize in their business agenda and put into implementation on their product and service offerings.
The newly released Fjord Trends 2020 Report also indicates such trend in design:”Organizations will increasingly need a systems mindset when dealing with complex problem-solving: A systems mindset combines purpose with people, with life at its heart, and comes from many years of practice, craft and habit. “
Craft - ladder not leader
An ideal organization should have workers at every level reporting to someone whose dominion is small enough to enable him to know as human beings those who report to him. (Understanding Leadership, Harvard Business Review, 2004)
From the on-going interviews, I constantly heard the leaderships describing their roles are to listen than talking, support than leading, contribute than controlling. Great leadership doesn’t come overnight with a title or granted power, or nature force of a charismatic personality, but such mind-set and exercises as that small and social human-being to work with the team. A set of human-centered habits and skills then can be developed into essential qualities over time, such as empathy in communication.
AI Keating, CEO of Coffee Supreme, one of the iconic speciality coffee brands originally from New Zealand once shared his “secret goals” as the leadership of the company is to be redundant and irreplaceable in his essay (Standart Magazine, issue 8, 2017). This precisely defines the excellence of leadership. Echoing with AI, Guanlin, co-founder of Short Sentence, a contemporary fashion and lifestyle brand based in Shanghai shared in her interview for this research: “Ideally I shall develop myself into a mascot of the company. That’s what I consider as the perfect state of performing my leadership. “
Sports = act right, think hard, fix quick and repeat
Honestly I started the research, bearing in mind that the interviews taken at this very difficult time might demonstrate a lot more darker downside and negativity at small and independent business who are on the edge of business crisis. To my surprise, there are much more positivities, sparkling ideas and good news from their stories. The surviving mode is already tuning into reviving mode for many of them by fully leveraging their advantages being independent.
Okra Kitchen, a contemporary casual izakaya located at a residential community in Hong Kong, just one stop from Central is crazily busy these days, with creating new recipes and testing menus to generate and satisfy growing needs during daytime, since evening hours which was their normally peak time is restricted. Sunday Folks, a business of sharing moments of happiness in their own word who runs cafes specialized in artisanal ice-cream, sweets and coffees at multiple locations in Singapore made a huge success by inventing their waffle take-out packages for online order and delivery during early months of the pandemic. Ishii Yasuo, founder of Leaves Coffee Roasters, the pioneer of third wave coffee culture in Tokyo made a quick and determined exit of his other six F&B establishments to help facilitate his team’s security for long term. He transferred his ownership of those businesses to his long-time work partners - store managers and chefs while he himself continues the coffee venture.
Speed is the keyword often brought up by the leaderships as they talked to the crisis management during the pandemic as well as considered important in their normal practice. It can be literally and easily mistaken by rushed decision-making, impatience with some desperate intensions to survive last minute, the typical enemies against sustainable business. Only after having a deep dive into their thinking behind, I come to understand that it is truly a mindful strategy and tactical process to drive highest efficiency possible to enable sustainable security, growth and innovation through small steps, reviews and fixes. They could be inspired spontaneously but not by impulsive emotions. They are small acts with big thinking for next steps to follow. Such leaderships are fearless to fail by knowing their realms. They think by acting as ways to sharpen their mind-sets and business skills. The speedy decisions are always based on the happiness and life-centered foundation. Each small cycle from ideation, inspiration to prototype and implementation runs times faster here thanks to the efficiency, ensuring constant and valid improvements. Coping with the mess in the pandemic, they responded timely and effectively, playing their flexibility and resilience, where larger corporations were having hard time to turn around.
Leadership as a platform
While conventional studies weighs more on static notions of leadership, it occurs to me this time through the research a hybrid and dynamic side of leadership, as a learning experience, a cultural landscape and as a human relationship.
Leadership is to inspire, motivate and empower.
As a commonly recognized benefit working with entrepreneurship, it is the opportunities to learn for self-development. And there are so much more paths and possibilities either we aspire to be specialist or generalist. As much as the leaderships address the fires and challenges in talent recruitment, they demonstrate a thoughtful dedication and significant investment in brand storytelling, talent training, leadership coaching - with a persistent passion and commitment to level up the standards of the industry that they deal with.
The majority of them are younger, aspirational and multi-talented than their peers at corporate settings in the same industry. They possess the similar characters as I trace back their learning path before becoming the business owners: 100% enthusiasm, high energy, big curiosity, great diligence, strong integrity and self-awareness, and compassion…not all of them were confident or creative from first place. But they are internally a rock climber who are eager to learn, to conquer, and to approach problems with different perspectives; externally they are sponge people who are so good at observing and absorbing all kinds of information, knowledges and connections. These become their weapon and greatest assets to grow outstanding competency, be it professional qualifications, business know-how, social relationship/networking and sensibilities. So it seems natural how much they aspire to be a leader who motivates, inspires and empowers the team to learn and grow.
Leadership is about human relations.
A temporary tendency of the key relationship in current leadership models each city can be drawn from the interviews. They are shaped by a mix of circumstances, such as the longer presence of historic factors, cultural contexts and specific short to mid-term business objectives etc.
Such relationships then evolve at different stages of the business development. New formats beyond the listed types could emerge in a fast-changing human-centered business environment.
What’s now at the top of their business agenda
Though the pandemic might cause certain cultural gaps and barriers physically and even isolation mentally, it is undoubtedly that the universal curiosity and exploration to curate an open, seamless and mutually beneficial eco-system of cross-cultural communication and collaboration would keep moving forward, getting smarter, bolder and wilder. This will again be increasingly triggered by the higher level of needs in the pyramid from the nature of human-being, and progressively empowered by technology intelligence and life wisdom. I strongly believe that the dynamics of the relationship in leadership would gradually nourish new business culture too. Similar to what we can tell from the success cases of small and independent business, it would continue to flourish in diversity, becoming colorful and healthy fabrics of our society. Built upon shared values and a refined vision, they come together to lead business innovations for sustainability and quality of living, wellbeing of the community and habitability of the planet.
Moving forward, how about we re-design leadership as a platform for relationship curation, cultural exchange and collective design to enable life-centered business innovation? - coming to this point after retrieving insights on their leadership’s now and then, I proposed this concept as their business outsider to discuss the new possibles.
This concept try to rethink leadership as an action-oriented, creativity-inspired, human-centered and sustainability-driven infrastructure or system of business, away from the traditional management point of view, such as decision maker, authority or guidance. First of all, within a team and one individual business, it provides a common ground to bring team and talents together, maximize their potentials and make room for greater changes to happen at the right times. Take business design as a single product design project, leadership shall be the host of an organic and highly engaging platform to encourage co-design, co-learning and collaboration by promoting individuality and creating equal opportunities and tools for everyone.
Leadership as a platform relates with business development, not just through internal innovations, but also the active interactions with the surrounding community and the industry associates. They act as storyteller, opinion leader, trendsetter, and innovator…the title can keep growing. They are given shared social responsibilities, which will in return broaden their outsights and network across, and in a longer view, give back to their business development by discovering and cultivating new opportunities, cultures and the growth of entire business society. Leaderships are in a privileged position to make change.
The overall feedbacks from the interviewees on the concept are very positive as they already started to consider and act their leadership differently. They like it as it clearly supports and concisely summarizes their leadership orientation and business mission. They feel that the concept helps clarified the directions for them to explore strategically.
Going back to the pyramid of needs, how might we help grow more business of excellence to fulfill the higher level of needs? What if designerly business - independent business with life-centered design thinking and a robust leadership platform come to fill the gap by growing as a whole new force of business innovation, while remaining boutique style individually? Down the road, what could be new challenges and obstacles? How might we, as design thinkers, challenge ourselves to think and act outside design to bridge conversations among business, design and culture diversity also as a platform?
Interview list (on-going)
Co-founder of Social Supply - a creative food events and catering company
Restauranteur at Happy Place Hospitality Group - her new group managing her multiple brands in Shanghai including bistro, cafe and bars.
Dai Yingying & Guanlin, Co-founders of Short Sentence
Contemporary fashion and lifestyle brand
Co-founder of Duli - a new local favorite vegan restaurant
Owner/chef/restauranteur at Okra
(with extensive experience in New York City, Beijing, Hong Kong and opening new business in Singapore)
Co-founders and CEO of NOC coffee company
Owner of Leaves Coffee Roasters
Public Relations at Gio and multiple establishments.
Founder of Kurasu Kyoto
Oyamazaki Coffee Roasters
Director of Standart Japan
Victor and Wancin
Co-founders of Sunday Folks and Creamier, the most successful artisanal ice cream and cafe brands in Singapore and expanding in South Asia
Founder of Oyster Sunday, a consultancy firm for independent restaurants in USA
Leadership on Wikipedia
Design leadership handbook (Design Better)
Act Like a Leader, Think Like a Leader
keynote address by Herminia Ibarra at the 2017 HR Congress in Brussels
Why Leadership = Storytelling
Design Leadership: Rethink our futures (Lucy West, 2017)
The Perseverance Of Resilient Leadership: Sustaining Impact On The Road To Thrive
8 Essential Qualities That Define Great Leadership (Forbes, 2018)
Leadership on Psychology Today
Design Thinking Comes of Age
Understanding Leadership by W.C.H. Prentice
The Meaning of Life
(The School of Life, 2019)
An Emotional Education
(introduced by Alain De Botton, first published 2019, Penguin Random House UK)
Being Boss column by Standart Magazine (issue 8, 10, 16, 18, 19, 2017 - 2020)
A Year in Japanese Coffee Vol.1
Podcast: We Will Be Right Back - The Future of Hospitality series
(Curated by Oyster Sunday in partnership with Chef’s Brigade, 2020)
Podcast: My Daily Business Coach series
(Hosted by Fiona Killackey, author, speaker, business coach and founder of My Daily Business Coach)
Podcast: One Wild Ride series
(Hosted by Pru Chapman, mentor, strategist, speaker, entrepreneur)