Lessons from Creative Leadership
Culture Innovation Leadership

Lessons from Creative Leadership

Leaders are often intimidated by the notion of creativity. This is because we often see creativity as something novel and reserved to a small group of talented individuals. When we think of creativity, we think of music, the arts, poetry—yet these are only products of creativity.

Leadership benefits from being creative and encouraging creativity. It is essential to foster innovation, create new ideas, and increase motivation. Not every member of your team needs to be Picasso or Beethoven, but everyone can benefit from the problem-solving skills and big-picture thinking that come with creativity. Many schools of thought see creativity as a skill rather than an innate quality, which makes it available for all leaders to cultivate in themselves and others.

Fighting the Blocks to Creativity

Fear of failure is one of the biggest obstacles to creativity. According to Ed Catmull, the co-founder of Pixar and former president of Walt Disney Animation Studios, one of the reasons we fear failure is the uncertainty of what we will learn from it. Even though the lessons we learn are invaluable, it is difficult to see the benefits before we get to the other side.

“I believe everybody has the potential to be creative. It is our choices that block or enable that creativity. We have to make it ok to make mistakes. We have to remove the blocks to candor.” Ed Catmull

Everyone is born with the potential for creativity and the only obstacles between talent and innovation are the invisible barriers we create for ourselves. In creative organizational cultures, people share, listen, and share responsibility and ownership of their ideas. Rather than enforcing policies and processes that prevent mistakes, leaders need to create high-functioning teams that aren’t afraid of failing and respond to failure efficiently. Teams should operate in a space where “it’s okay to say things that don’t work”.

Cultivating Originality

Repetition, persistence, and consistency are essential for learning, but not necessarily for creativity and innovation. The greatest ideas emerge from novelty and deviation from the norm, sometimes even from irrationality. Letting these qualities run wild and free without direction, however, is not the best way to lead. Particularly, delivering novel ideas and making sure that they are well-received is an art of its own.

Adam Grant, professor, organizational psychologist, and award-winning author, suggests that we lead with weaknesses. By expressing what is lacking, we give less room for others to object to our ideas immediately. In addition, this reduces our availability bias.

Availability bias means that when a thought is easy to conceive, we tend to believe that it’s true. However, if an idea is difficult to conceive, we tend to think it’s false or inapplicable. When you state the flaws of your idea to begin with, others don’t need to think hard about the faults and are therefore more likely to accept your idea.

“When you pitch a new idea to someone else, you are not only hearing the tune in your head, you’re actually the one who wrote the song.” Adam Grant

The more original ideas are, the harder it is to convey them and for others to appreciate them. Gaining an understanding of new ideas requires several exposures and some previous knowledge of what the idea relates to. Leaders need to connect people and ideas through something familiar, as ideas that seem too foreign can create resistance and fear.

Creating Space for Creativity

Creative leaders create an environment where their people can flourish through collaboration, diversity, and—perhaps most importantly—freedom of expression. Yet, creativity doesn’t arise from merely encouraging failure or the ability to express and convey ideas. Creating an accepting and psychologically safe environment doesn’t work by itself either. People need time and space to be creative, and there are many ways to provide it.

Juliet Funt, the CEO of WhiteSpace at Work, created the concept of white space for exactly this purpose. According to her, most companies fail to be efficient due to encouraging unnecessary busywork, which seems productive on paper, yet creates no results. It’s not only a big chunk of wasted money for the company, but overwhelms and creates an unnecessary burden for employees.

Juliet defines white space as a “strategic pause taken between activities.” It encourages change in organizational culture from the individual level, by giving employees time to relax and clear their mind. It’s not meditation, mind wandering, or mindfulness, but a free space for creativity. By giving employees this silent pause every day, leaders can drive results, employee satisfaction, innovation, and change the organizational culture.

“It’s about allowing the time and space for wonderful innovative ideas to grace you with their presence.” Juliet Funt

Interested in learning more?

Here is a summary of our webinar with Amy Edmondson, the world’s #1 management thinker and Harvard Professor, discussing psychological safety and how to create a workplace where ideas and people flourish.


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