Ben Holliday

Seniority in Design: leading sideways

Some more thoughts on design leadership and positioning (where you lead from).

You can lead from the side, not just from the front

Sometimes the intention to lead is enough. You can hold yourself to that responsibility, even when you’re not seen as a leader by others in your organisation.

This means that you don’t need hierarchy or a particular job title to lead. You can start from where you are.

Hierarchy and job titles are the type of leadership or management that comes from being put in charge. This type of leadership then relies on maintaining power and control. It’s when it matters how many people report to you or where your name is listed on the org chart.

Even with 21st century leadership styles and structures, there will still always be someone working above you. Everyone answers to someone, even if it’s their shareholders. But, more often than not, you will find that there are dotted lines to the people alongside and around you. These are the people that will really lead you. Inspire you, and even eventually be you.

As a designer, you have the ability and opportunity to influence and lead other people. So if you’re not in a position to lead from the front think about what it means to lead sideways.


Be deliberate with how you work with those closest to you.

If you’re leading sideways, think of this as providing ‘unbalance’. A counterweight, that placed far enough away from the traditional front and centre can provide enough of a tilt so that things start to work differently.

Design is more about finding and working with the tension between things. How they are, and how they could be. This is where creativity is, the space in between and around how things are supposed to to work. Leadership can be creative, starting with the space you’re in.

Design is a leading practice

This is not just for those privileged enough to hold positions of power and status. Done collectively, a group of people prepared to lead design has the power to move the needle, culture and ways of working in an organisation, so they then start to challenge traditional power dynamics and structures.

This blog is part of a short series following my original post about seniority in design.

This is my blog where I’ve been writing for 18 years. You can follow all of my posts by subscribing to this RSS feed. You can also find me on Bluesky, less frequently now on X (formally Twitter), and on LinkedIn.