5 Leadership Questions With Debbie Millman

This year's HOW Design Live event includes a HOW Leadership Conference. Conference program director Debbie Millman spoke to us about the all-star collection of speakers she pulled together – and leadership in general.

HOW Design Live, which takes place May 12-16 in Boston, is five conferences for creative professionals rolled into one. For the first time ever there's a specific leadership track. Design thought leader and author Debbie Millman, president of Sterling Brands' design division, chatted with me about leadership in the creative industry and gave me the scoop on this much-anticipated conference.

This is the first HOW Leadership Conference. What can people expect? What skills, knowledge or feelings do you hope attendees will leave with?

The HOW Leadership track will be a very special set of presentations featuring some of the most remarkable and innovative thinkers of our time. Speakers have been chosen from a diverse cross section of disciplines to create an environment for participants that are one part learning, one part observation, one part renewal and one part elevation.

The lineup of speakers you've assembled is beyond impressive. There's going to be an insane amount of brainpower and talent at the conference. Did the final list of presenters exceed your expectations?

Yes! Without a doubt. The common denominator that all the HOW Leadership speakers share is brilliance. Malcolm Gladwell, Dan Pink, Seth Godin, Maria Popova, Jake Barton, Paola Antonelli, Moira Cullen, Christine Mau, and the list goes on; they are simply some of the best minds in design and branding today. It is like having a dream team of amazing-ness all in one place over three remarkable days.

What is your leadership style?

I've been told I'm demanding but fair. I'm passionate, headstrong, decisive and I truly want the best for people.

In your opinion, what skills, abilities or attributes will be most pivotal to being a great leader in the creative industry in the years ahead?

I think leadership has changed for everyone ­– not just designers. As I was putting together the content and speaker recommendations, I kept in mind one of the greatest – if not the greatest – definition of leadership I have ever come across. It was written by David Foster Wallace, and it is from his masterful book of essays titled Consider the Lobster:

A real leader can somehow get us to do certain things that deep down we think are good and want to be able to do but usually can't get ourselves to do on our own. It's a mysterious quality, hard to define, but we always know it when we see it, even as kids… If you've ever spent time in the military, you know how incredibly easy it is to tell which of your superiors are real leaders and which aren't, and how little rank has to do with it. A leader's real "authority" is a power you voluntarily give him, and you grant him this authority not with resentment or resignation but happily; it feels right. Deep down, you almost always like how a real leader makes you feel, the way you find yourself working harder and pushing yourself and thinking in ways you couldn't ever get to on your own. In other words… a real leader is somebody who can help us overcome the limitations of our own individual laziness and selfishness and weakness and fear and get us to do better things than we can get ourselves to do on our own.

What's the greatest piece of management or leadership advice you've ever received?

The great football coach Vince Lombardi famously said, "I never lost a game. I just ran out of time." I think it is among the most optimistic and inspiring pieces of advice ever.

Are you going to HOW Design Live? What presenters are you most interested in seeing? If you haven't registered to attend, there's still time. Visit the HOW Design Live registration page.

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