When the going gets tough, perhaps tough leaders not only need to get going, but they also need to get creative.
That may seem to be an almost counter-intuitive assertion for those of us in the leadership development field. But there is increasing evidence that across the vast array of content on leadership styles and skills, creativity has become among the most under-appreciated.
Part of the problem is that there is no consensus around what it means to be a creative leader.
The term “creative leader” has been around since the mid 1950s as psychologists and development practitioners first attempted to establish the criteria for effective business leadership. However, as different models and definitions of leadership styles were developed, it often seemed creativity was left off of many lists.
One of the reasons for this omission was that nobody could agree on a definition: was a creative leader a source of great, new ideas; or someone who created an environment where creative employees could prosper? The ambiguity that surrounded creativity as a leadership competency meant that it often took a back seat to other trends in leadership styles and objectives.
As the Harvard Business Review put it in a 2008 commentary: “Creativity has always been at the heart of business, but until now it hasn’t been at the top of the management agenda.” Nearly 15 years later, this is still a key competency needed to navigate today’s complex environment.
Striving for a universal definition of the creative leader
As academics searched for a definition of creative leadership, the debate seemed to be limited to discussing leaders atop the world’s most innovative companies. Put “world’s most creative leaders” into a Google search and you will come up with names like Steve Jobs, Richard Branson, Elon Musk and Muhammad Yunus. But that doesn’t really tell us that much about what it is specifically about their approach to leadership that makes them creative.
Other lists, notably Fast Company’s annual ranking of the most creative people in business, gets closer to the heart of what makes a business person creative. Often, however, the people highlighted in this resource are not leaders, per se. They are great minds producing beautiful ideas.
To clarify the concept of creative leadership, academics have tried to establish competency models. Although numerous definitions have been produced as an outcome of all this thinking, various meta-analyses of academic literature have revealed a few agreed-upon characteristics of a creative leader such as curiosity, flexibility, and decisiveness.
Is creative leadership the right solution for today’s business challenges?
Most business leaders today will tell you that with all of the dynamic external pressures they face on a daily basis – the evolution of technology, the pandemic, climate change, the drive for diversity and inclusion – it’s hard to find the time to engage in lofty thinking about such competencies.
This is where creative leadership finds the greatest traction. Let’s home in on the building blocks of creativity that are easily attainable for most leaders and can be applied almost immediately on the front lines of business:
- Intensely curious
Creative leaders often arrive at meetings with a note pad – paper or digital – and ask more questions than provide answers. Some of the most successful creatives take time for reflection to ponder what should be done differently, they are able to pick out the winning idea from a cauldron of arguably great ideas. Or, put another way, they connect the dots between a specific problem and the best possible solution. Creative leaders can see the pattern in the mayhem, allowing them to envision the right solution at the right time.
- Consistently flexible
Creative leaders thrive in the face of change, and are often seen as catalysts for improving, enhancing, or expanding all that they oversee. Creative leaders understand that no single leadership style works in every situation. There are times when you need to step back and let your teams create new ideas. However, in some situations, you may need to roll up your sleeves and become more directive. Other times, you may need to adopt a coaching mindset and provide the support and empathy to help people work out their own problems. Being able to adapt your leadership style to the situation will produce the most creativity.
- A master of balancing risk and psychological safety
The willingness to take risks should not be confused with the adrenaline fuelled, bungee-jumping antics of leaders who throw caution to the wind. Creative leaders are keen to take calculated risks with the knowledge that if things don’t work out, the insight they gain from their failures will inform future innovations. They elicit more ideas and insights from their teams by fostering a safe environment for taking risks. By recognizing the psychological safety triggers across their team, creative leaders not only establish an environment to drive solutions, but also becomes the source of solutions through ongoing experimentation.
- Boldly decisive and intuitive
Creative leaders have learned how to trust and interpret those subtle signals they get from their guts. Science has confirmed that our guts have a brain of their own. It possesses an entire network of chemical messengers that together, form the enteric nervous system. When these neurotransmitters in our guts fire up, it can result in what many people would call butterflies, or those queasy sensations that often precede big decisions. Truly creative leaders learn how to interpret these sensations and apply the findings to decision making. They understand that butterflies do not necessarily mean “stop.” It may just mean “proceed, but with caution.”
- Intensely curious
Taken together, these creative leadership competencies get us closer to answering the question I posed earlier in the article: is a creative leader the source of new ideas, or a person who creates an environment where creativity can prosper?
The answer is pretty obvious: it’s both.
For far too long, leaders have been encouraged to be so many different things to different people, that specific competencies like creativity have become watered down or completely ignored. However, in an age where volatile change seems to arrive on an almost daily basis, the ability to create – both new ideas and an environment that promotes creativity – might be among the most important skills a leader can bring to the job.