The Creative Leadership No-Brainer, Part I

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    Even more creativity is going to be needed if we are to continue thriving in the business market. According to IBM’s Institute for Business Value, a survey of 1500 CEOs revealed that “creativity is the single most important attribute to lead a large corporation.”

    Training our creative corporate staff how to lead and our leaders how to be creative and innovate to increase productivity must be high on our list. To get there we need the best of creative types–especially in our leaders; however, a recent study by Jennifer Mueller, a professor at the Wharton School of Business, Jack A. Goncalo of Cornell University, and Dishan Kamdar of the Indian School of Business conducted a series of experiments to find out how creative people were viewed by their colleagues. The trio’s results tell a different story that should cause us some concern.

    The road to Innovation needs the creative efforts of both leadership and staff. What began as a vibrant new idea is the standard. Where do we innovate from here?

    In the study, individuals who expressed creative ideas were viewed as having less leadership potential than individuals whose ideas were less creative. This left me wondering if we were ready mentally to take on the training challenge that goes with changing the way we view people in our organization.

    What are your perceptions of creative people? Are they leadership material? Recent studies say, “NO.” Are leaders creative, again, “NO.” None of this is absolute, of course. There are always exceptions.

    We should encourage creativity in staff as well as leaders. That becomes difficult in a culture that tends to view the creative types as quirky, nerdy types lacking in leadership potential. So who’s to lead these groups. Leaders have retreats designed to bring out their creative ability—but we should also be expected to train company creatives to lead, and others to tolerate and respect what each individual brings to the table, and leave the old corporate culture competitiveness behind. (That’s probably the toughest chore.) This is a new corporate culture, tolerant and bright–maybe even a bit quirky. You can’t get rid of it all. And, to some extent, we are already doing the training we need to do in the near term. In creative environments where non-creative managers are in the minority, we train creative people to lead and manage because we can’t have them be “just one of the guys.”

    Can you train someone to be creative? I think you can pose scenarios, offer meditation techniques, reflection and observation techniques. There are tons of training tools available off the shelf or in our creative minds already. As for teaching the creative types leadership and management? Sure, you can teach organization and time management skills as well as effective communication, collaboration, mediation, negotiating and facilitating skills. We’ve been training leadership for years, but maybe it’s time to take another look and re-evaluate the importance of creative thinking and expression. We shouldn’t ignore the good old standards that work either, but let’s use them to bring out the creative solutions we need. And, add to that flexibility, which goes along well in bringing creativity out of leadership.

    The creative geek and the leader. We tolerate the geek. Some of the most successful companies today put the geek in the chairman’s seat.

    Typically,we hire people who fit, people who are team players—not necessarily the creatives…that is unless we have a specific job for them, and then we tolerate them and their idiosyncrasies. Obviously, there are companies that are creative by nature—they deal in artistic and graphic representations, or problem-solving… Wait that’s still most of us. So, while we can look to obviously creation-based companies, there are elements in all companies. All deal with a measure of problem solving, which is a key point of creativity. Solutions are “ah-ha” moments, therefore, creative.

    Because of my arts background, one would probably think that my situation is different from your situation. Actually it’s not; I just see it partitioned a little different. Sure, I work with creative people all the time in theatre and not-so-creative people in my day job with the federal government. Easy to believe—but I think it’s not so much the case anymore. Just as there are non-creative people in theatre, there are creative people in government. To be honest, some are just not in a “position” that would allow such creativity.

    But why not? That is a management training question. Ironically, someone demonstrating creativity can threaten another employee by simply getting attention, if the creativity is work-related, of course. Leaders—even creative ones—must stick to certain protocols that are expected to keep the non-creative type workers happy. Remember, creativity is out-of-box thinking (read change) and change is hard to accept. Companies, and I include government here, often work by committee (or a group of managers) so warranted attention doesn’t go to one person or a small specific group. The reason for that is that “we want everyone to feel a part of the company’s successes,” but sometimes that just “isn’t productive.” Really? Too many cooks…and the fact that rank has its privileges and influence–not exactly the best prescription for creativity to flourish.

    I worked on a communication steering committee, whose sole purpose was to change the way the organization presented itself to others. We had every division represented and if they weren’t, it just wasn’t fair. It took us over a year of bi-weekly meetings rubber-stamping sub-committees work or having one division try to diminish its effectiveness. It became a power play that ended well only for the chiefs; the lower-level creatives who did the real work of making the product given honorable mention, “It couldn’t have happened without you.” A small group of creatives could have put together a proposal in a couple of weeks.

    It may be time again for a culture change, and trainers of leadership and creativity skills will be key players.

    Creative people can be leaders and often are, but the perception of someone who exhibits that creativity too openly is not of the norm; he or she is seen as odd—useful but odd. Think of creative people who suddenly have been thrust in a leadership position. Did their behavior change? How were they perceived by those creative people around them? Those theatre people chosen to run the board of directors of the theatre company were most likely creative people before, my experience has been—if they are creative now—they don’t exercise it openly because, they say “of the business nature of theatre.” On the flip side, when those same theatre people were directors, they would see a project through from the concept to product delivery. On the board, it’s almost as if they had overcome their creative nature to be acceptable to the rest of us. No, they shouldn’t.

    Theatre is obviously a business that encourages creativity—as is any business such as advertising or marketing that wants to get people’s attention. There are ways it can help business leaders as well. See this article on using the arts to train leaders. We can only conclude many businesses have creative leaders who don’t necessarily exercise their creative thinking in their problem solving once they became CEO. They delegate. It’s time they stop delegating, use the creative skills that got them there, and allow others the freedom to use their creative ability well. Nothing like a little freedom to see what they can really do. If they can’t be creative, get them some training.

    Stay tuned for Part II.

    For more resources about training, see the Training library.

    For a look at the human side of training from my Cave Man perspective, please check out my book, The Cave Man Guide to Training and Development.