The dance of creative leadership

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The demands from leadership have never been higher. The focus on performance is still there, but across many sectors the environment is more volatile and disruptive than it has ever been. Vision is no longer enough; a leader should instil his or her team with a sense of purpose. Innovation used to belong at the start of a process, now it’s continuous. And, of course, as we shift away from patriarchal views of leadership as inherently masculine, we add emotional intelligence, empathy, intuition, social awareness and so on…

And now there’s creativity, without which there will be no innovation (which, to an extent is the practical application of creativity). While innovation has many models and processes, creativity, which should generate the ideas that drive innovation, remains more enigmatic. How do you manage something so mysterious and ‘fluffy’? Is there method to it? Is it simply down to the leader being creative, or is it about them leading the organisation’s creativity, or both?

When discussing old-school leadership vs contemporary leadership practices, some stereotypes are very much alive. That’s a shame, because if, when we’re talking about the new demands on leadership, we simply contrast them with a Machiavellian command and control straw-man, we will not push the new paradigm far enough, and we’ll miss the big picture. Instead, we should take a more integrative view.

Here are four principles that draw on both ancient and new leadership approaches.

1. The creative leader ensures the freedom of the team

In the drive for organisational innovation, there’s a lot of emphasis on creating an entrepreneurial culture – one where creative ideas percolate and rise up through the business, creating new offerings. Without creativity you can’t have an entrepreneurial culture because creativity generates the content.

So the first step, if you want be a creative leader, is to create the space and freedom that people need to come up with ideas and run with them, even if they don’t obviously align with your current business model.

This isn’t a new concept. The idea of a leader that nurtures a team, lets it thrive and encourages taking the initiative without asking permission for every single step, goes back as far as Sun Tzu’s The Art of War. It’s built into the leadership principles of many armies, and is quite central in the leadership principles of the US marines. The more recent Functional Leadership Model states that a leader can be said to have done their job well when they have contributed to group effectiveness and cohesion.

2. Creative leadership is an organisation-wide imperative

Monitoring and moderating the challenge level while building the team’s skill, is a job that requires support from other parts of the organisation. Moderating challenge will sometimes be about managing stakeholder expectations, but more often it will be encouraging stakeholders to go for braver solutions and pushing the team to take on bigger challenges. In professional services, it will often mean convincing clients to be more ambitious in their objectives and their projects – thus, client leaders have a great role. In more consumer led organisations, it may be about the marketing team helping customers embrace new technologies or service models.

3. The art of getting out of the way

The initial freedom we mentioned as the first principle makes a return here. Once the entire organisation is involved, it’s too easy to rely on rigid procedures, structures and report mechanisms that may fall back into the single dimensions of production or people.

The good news is that this principle requires mostly self-control to execute. Just get out of the way. When people are in flow, let them be in flow and develop their ideas. Watch from afar as the magic happens. Notice opportunities and problems, but keep them to yourself for a while. Once things have developed enough and it’s time to start connecting them to reality, then you step back in. It requires sensitivity and intuition, but most of all it requires you to get out of the way.

4. Back on track

Creative leaders help their teams walk the winding creative path between problem solving and imagination. They don’t let them fall into pure problem solving – production driven, too constrained, likely linear and unlikely to result in disruption (important, but for more fully baked ideas). But they’re also responsible for bringing them back from the realm of pure imagination. Too much imagination and nothing ever becomes a reality. Too much problem solving and you fall into the reflexive knee-jerk world of survival mode business.

Here, again, it would require not just re-engaging with the team, but also engaging with the organisation – creating space for imagination, keeping production pressures at bay as needed, and letting the right constraints drive creativity (and boy, does creativity love a constraint) so ideas become a reality at the end of the creative process.

In summary

The more creative people are, the more they demand from their leaders. They do not want to follow blindly, but they also expect to feel inspired.

Feeling inspired is more powerful for truly creative people, than any other sort of authority. If they don’t get inspired, if you don’t facilitate their flow, they’ll go somewhere else.

As creativity becomes more important to the success of your organisation, so is creative leadership. And it’s something the entire organisation needs to get behind. 

This article was originally published by Virgin.  Read an extended version here