This is one in a series of leadership profiles drawn from our new book, Leading with Strategic Thinking, highlighting what the most strategic leaders do differently.

Liz Gerber founded Design for America to help students apply concepts of design thinking and innovation to meaningful, real world problems. Students in the program have invented a product to help doctors avoid spreading germs among patients, a teddy bear that teaches diabetic children the importance of self-care, and an automated lighting system that helps the elderly avoid injury at night.

In leading the organization, Liz demonstrates what we call incubating leadership, creating results by empowering others. She builds networks among the students, assesses opportunities to help them grow their ideas, sees patterns among a diverse range of experiments and projects, lends the organization's assets to the most promising ideas, and creates an overall ecosystem of support that helps the students succeed.

Liz is self-aware of what it takes to lead in a way that focuses more on her student's ideas than her own.  In talking to us about how she views her role, she said:

These days I feel sometimes like I have a strange role in that I’ve been around longer than all the students, so I know what we’ve done before. Someone will bring up an idea and I think in my head, “Oh yeah, we tried that then and we tried that then and it didn’t work either time.” But instead of discouraging them, I always try and say something like, “Great, I love that you’re excited about this. Let me give you some insight in to other previous efforts so you can learn from it. Plan it out, show us what you’d like to do, and let’s try it.” In those cases I don’t shut them down, but I do ask them to gather a little more evidence about whether it’s going to work or not. Given where we’ve evolved to, I think that’s my new role. 

This epitomizes the mindset of the incubating leader, and Liz's leadership helps bring that to life in our book.

Leading with Strategic Thinking will be released on April 13, 2015

Find out more about Liz and Design for America:

Design for America

Liz Gerber, PhD, Northwestern University

@elizgerber (Twitter)



AuthorAaron Olson