There has long been a view in large corporations that creativity was good, but perhaps not for them. Genuine creative thinking was perhaps a bit ‘freeform’, a touch too wild. Most organisations paid lip service to the importance of creativity—but when it came to the crunch, they tended to appoint leaders who were relatively risk-averse, and tended to favour maintaining the status quo.
More recently, however, there is a growing sense that the world is changing too fast to hold to this approach. Corporations that don’t change with the market are understood to be likely to die. As a result, the concept of creative leadership—leadership that supports and encourages creativity within the organisation—has become more mainstream. This page discusses that concept, and explains how leaders can foster this culture of creativity.
The Origins of Creative Leadership
The concept of creativity is not new in organisations or management. However, until relatively recently, it was seen as the preserve of start-ups and entrepreneurs. Large, established corporations were somehow felt to need it less.
Creativity was, in fact, a bit wild and free for most big companies.
That’s not to say that big companies didn’t see the need to innovate—they did. They just weren’t sure how to do it within the confines of the existing organisational structure or hierarchy. Many established separate R&D departments, bought start-ups, or established spin-offs to get access to a more creative approach. These units tended to operate separately from the main organisation, to give them the freedom to work differently.
This kind of approach will work for a while. However, when the whole world is changing at speed, and you need to keep up, a siloed approach to innovation and creativity is not really enough. Instead, companies started to recognise that they needed creativity and innovation to be happening in every department.
From this idea, the concept of creative leadership was born (see box).
Definitions of creative leadership and creative leaders
“Creative leadership is a style of leadership based upon the concept of working cooperatively to develop innovative ideas.”
Mumford, M.D., Scott, G.M., Gaddis, B., Strange, J.M. (2002). Leading creative people: Orchestrating expertise and relationships. The Leadership Quarterly, 13(6): 705–750
“Creative leadership is a philosophy and an act: it develops and realizes innovative ideas through the shared ambition of improving the world through enterprise formation..... forging an environment that promotes creativity, innovation, and mission-driven entrepreneurship.”
“Creative leadership is the ability to inspire and guide others to generate new ideas that encourage innovation.”
“Creative leaders have the ability to take an innovative approach to problem-solving and utilize new ideas generated independently and collectively with others to inspire change and take action.”
Lum, J. (2022). How to embody creativity in leadership. Forbes.com
The Characteristics of Creative Leadership and Creative Leaders
What sets creative leaders, and creative leadership, apart?
At a workshop on creative leadership at Harvard Business School, academics and business leaders discussed the concept and concluded:
Leaders should not be the source of ideas, but instead see their role as encouraging and championing other people’s ideas.
Leaders must tap into the imagination of employees at all levels, and ask inspiring questions.
Leaders need to help their organisations to incorporate a wide range of perspectives.
These will spur creative insights, and facilitate creative collaboration.
This philosophy can be summed up in a single phrase (see box):
One doesn’t manage creativity. One manages for creativity.
Amabile, T.M. & Khaire, M. (2008). Creativity and the role of the leader, Harvard Business Review, 10
In other words, the role of a creative leader is to put in place the conditions that encourage creativity to flourish within the organisation. This means:
Having a diverse workforce and encouraging contributions from everyone. There is more about why this matters in our page on Diversity in Groups and Teams, and more about how to do so in our page on Creating an Inclusive Workplace.
Giving employees plenty of autonomy to develop and pursue their own ideas, within the confines of the company’s operations. It is important to encourage people to challenge the status quo as well as trying to make existing processes and products better.
Asking the right questions. Managers and leaders are facilitators in this new world—and one of the best ways to facilitate is to ask the right questions. The right questions show an interest, but also challenge thinking, and encourage new ways of looking at problems or solutions.
There is more about this in our pages on Questioning Skills and Techniques and Facilitation Skills.
Encouraging collaboration, rather than competition between individuals or teams.
Debunking the ‘lone genius’ myth
Historically, we tend to favour—and value—the idea of the ‘lone genius’.
In the past, it is true that breakthroughs sometimes happened because of one person’s vision. An example of this is British entrepreneur and businessman James Dyson, the inventor of a new form of non-vacuum cleaner.
However, more recently, most innovations have drawn on multiple contributors.
We should, in fact, be using the ‘Wikipedia’ model, with lots of independent or co-dependent contributors. This now has much more chance of success.
- Removing obstacles to creativity. The biggest obstacles tend to be bureaucracy and established processes. However, paradoxically, inventors’ own enthusiasm can often block generation of newer, better ideas because they get ‘stuck’ on one idea, and cannot bring themselves to abandon it. Some companies offer ‘kill fees’ to employees willing to abandon an idea that can’t be taken further. However, perhaps the best way is market testing, with a clear understanding of the criteria for continuing with projects.
It is also important for leaders to recognise that people are suited to different stages of the creative process, including bringing projects to market. Some are better at generating ideas. Others are better at exploring those ideas, or taking projects and refining them ready for market. There is space for all these skills.
Good creative leaders will enable them all to play their part, recognising that everyone works better when they are doing something that interests them.
The Importance of Embracing Failure
One of the most important characteristics of creative leadership is the ability to embrace failure.
As organisations get bigger, and particularly as they get more successful, it often becomes harder to accept failure. However, it is important to recognise that any organisation that is experimenting extensively will have a certain proportion of projects that do not succeed.
Creative leaders need to accept this—and embrace it as a support for organisational learning. They may need a process to look at ‘failed’ projects and see what can be learned for the future.
They must also find a way to help individuals to manage the failure of ‘pet projects’. Our page on Dealing with Failure may be helpful here.
A model of creative leadership
One model of creative leadership is the role of music producers.
Creating a record means bringing together many different people, including singers, songwriters, musicians, publishers, and people from the record label. The person who is responsible for managing this process is the producer.
They have to allow the musicians the space to exercise their creativity, but also balance any competing interests, and the demands of the music company executives. There is no obvious ‘good’ or ‘bad’, so the producer has to steer the process through without a clear measure of success. They also get very little credit at the end of the process—only the glory of helping others to realise their ideas.
Source: Amabile, T.M. & Khaire, M. (2008). Creativity and the role of the leader, Harvard Business Review, 10
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A Final Thought
The concept of creative leadership turns a lot of the thinking about traditional leadership on its head.
Creative leaders are not the main source of ideas or inspiration. Instead, they recognise that some or even most of the best ideas may come from others—and their aim is to facilitate that process. It is a very different idea of leadership, but should be no less inspiring.