Official White House Photo by Lawrence Jackson.
Being a creative leader is usually nuanced — it can involve balancing business, user, and client needs, as well as managing a team and developing compelling creative solutions. It was especially so at the White House during my time serving as Creative Director. There the pressures were great, but there was no rule book or long line of examples for how the role could or should function in that environment.
I worked from within the Office of Digital Strategy (ODS), and my position, as well as the office itself, were both very new to government. ODS was an innovation that President Obama himself brought to the White House. The President had seen first-hand the ways in which his 2008 presidential campaign used clear communication, digital engagement, and design to connect him with the American people. He, rightly so, wanted this work to continue for the American people and administration from within the White House.
The White House was both a challenging and an educational place to work. With the position came national and international projects, timely (sometimes contentious) topics, long hours, close proximity to power, and performance pressures which made it an environment rife with opportunities to develop. It was also an environment with a diverse group of leaders whose different styles inspired me in evolving my own leadership style.
I’m sharing just a few of lessons from various White House staff with the hope that they’ll be as useful in your creative journey and leadership growth as they’ve been in mine:
Your work is only as good as you feel.
Gleaned from Presidential Videographer, Hope Hall
Once, in my first couple of weeks at the White House, I was working at my desk with such an intense focus that my shoulders were up near my ears. My coworker, Hope Hall, as she walked by gently pushed my shoulders down suggesting, “Take care of my good friend Ashleigh.” Before that moment, I hadn’t been aware of my unusual physical posture or intensity.
As designers, it’s easy to get caught up in plans or in the details of a project and lose awareness of ourselves and our surroundings. It happened to me a lot at the White House.
With all of the work that we were doing and with how passionate we were when doing it, it was almost instinctive to suppress pain and disregard how we were really doing. I used to even think that getting and staying in that mode was the selfless thing to do.
But the lesson here is that how you feel matters and carries into your work, work environment, team, and beyond. It’s important to be mindful — to be as attentive to yourself as you are to your output. Your body, those around you, the people you care about, and your work will all be better for this new self-awareness. Give it a shot!
Raise more leaders amongst you
As often demonstrated by White House Social Secretary, Deesha Dyer
As humans, we’re naturally risk adverse. Sadly, this can mean that as a manager of a team you may be tempted to stifle the growth of the leaders amongst you. After all, you care a lot about the work and you know there’s a pretty good chance of failure even if you work on something, so why would you hand responsibility over to someone with less experience leading, right?
Well, at least at the White House, innovation and success under pressure requires empowering each person to rise as leaders and to both propose and deliver solutions. There is a chance they will fail, but they’re also more likely to give it their all if they are being trusted to lead and have some degree of personal ownership. And after one win at the helm, they’ll be more likely to want to earn more responsibility.
Social Secretary Deesha Dyer demonstrated this well at the White House. Deesha was charged with planning massive events, like the visit of his Holiness Pope Francis and other state arrivals. Rather than hold the reins tight as the manager of the social team, she rotated team leads on big projects, allowing others to step up to a challenge, learn by leading, and successfully complete incredible events for the administration. She encouraged each member of her team to be a leader in fulfilling the mission of the team.
I picture Deesha and most leaders as conductors or maestros of orchestras. The job isn’t to prevent mistakes — despite how it may appear when an orchestra performs, the maestro isn’t able to control each sound during the performance. Instead, the role is to train and enable each member to do their part well, as independent leaders collaborating together so that the whole can be better than the sum of its parts.
Of course, if you’re the manager, this type of leadership requires checking your ego. It means seeing the strengths of your teammates. It insists on mentoring and pulling the best out of those around you.
It’s also well worth it.
Give more credit than you take
As often demonstrated by White House Chief of Staff, Denis McDonough
I think we’ve all seen this, a manager of a team who wants to focus on leading the folks who report to her, but is often distracted by the temptation to prove herself to the person she reports to. That impulse often results in the manager taking credit for her team’s work to the powers that be.
Here’s the thing: good leadership doesn’t seek attention for the tasks or results of those tasks, it seeks attention for the results and those it’s leading.
Take White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough, who reports directly to President Obama. He must want the president to know he’s working hard and that it’s paying off, but he doesn’t get distracted by that temptation and it’s lovely.
Instead of taking credit, he’s constantly reporting out on the successes of those he oversees. Each week, he reads reports from each office, and each week he sends an email to the White House thanking the individuals and teams responsible for the week’s successes.
These actions help with retention and job satisfaction and function as incentives for further team wins.
It’s about the work, not the title or position
Taught by President Barack Obama
In the United States, we typically ask children what they want to be when they grow up and not what they want to achieve. With that, it makes sense that many gravitate towards titles and positions throughout their lives.
However, President Obama gave some sage advice to a class of interns during his second term that goes against this school of thought. He advised them to focus on the work, or what they want to achieve, and less on a title, position, or role.
When you focus on a role, the allure of it will likely start to wear down as soon as you achieve it — after you check that mental box and start to feel the weight of the responsibilities that come with it. Achieving a position marks the start of a journey and not the end of one.
Another reason to focus on work is that you may not achieve that role. If you don’t, you’ll likely be devastated with very little comfort if that was your primary objective.
If you focus instead on what you want to achieve, you’ll find that there are typically many more paths to achieving it. If you don’t get the specific role you had your eye on, you’ll have hit a hurdle instead of an insurmountable obstacle to fulfilling your dream.
I find this advice especially helpful right now having left the White House and knowing that my brilliant colleagues and the President himself will be changing roles. If we can all adopt the mindset so well suggested by our boss, we will each continue to do fantastic work from wherever we end up next.
Ashleigh Axios is an international speaker, strategic creative, and an advocate for design’s ability to break barriers and create positive social change. Axios is a board member for AIGA, the professional association for design. Axios served as the creative director and a digital strategist at the White House, where she led design from within the Office of Digital Strategy. She was the first female, minority, and the youngest White House Creative Director as well as the longest-serving designer of the Obama administration. Axios is also the president emeritus of AIGA Washington D.C., where she formed and leadsDotGovDesign, an initiative connecting and empowering government designers, and the annual DotGovDesign Conference. Axios went to Rhode Island School of Design, where she earned a BFA in graphic design (and met her wonderful husband).