What is creative leadership?

180px-telemachus_and_mentor.jpgCreative leaders attract a great deal of attention in business, politics, sport, and education. There seems to be a widespread belief that creative leadership is a good thing and that more you can get the better. How far are we from a rigorous understanding of an under-researched topic?

Creativity and leadership have various characteristics in common. Both have attracted attention across a wide range of professional, educational, and socio-political fields. Both have defied easy definition. Furthermore, there are few convincing answers to questions such as: How might creative leadership be distinguished from non-creative leadership? In what way might this distinction help anyone?

A personal view

A few years ago I collaborated with Susan Moger on a practitioner text, Handbook for Creative Team Leaders. We have used it in different countries and with many different kinds of team. In the book, we point to two different sets of beliefs about creativity. The first is the rare gift view, and the second is the universal human capability view. Our commitment to the latter can be traced to ideas of creativity derived from Carl Rogers, and developed within the creative problem-solving movement.

Our audiences have tended to take for granted the notion that teams need creativity. When asked for definitions or explanations we tend to say something like ‘Creativity is a process through which individuals and groups discover new and useful ideas. Creative leaders are people who help that process come about’.

A confession

They say you make progress when you realize how much you don’t know. If that’s the case, I’ve made progress recently. I’ve reached the conclusion that I have no well-grounded answer to the question ‘what is creative leadership?’.

My dissatisfaction comes from the knowledge that the approach outlined above has tended to favour the lived experience over the abstract concept. The focus is on creating rather than reflecting on the creative process.

This need not be the case. Chris Argyris has called the primary discovery processes single-loop, and reflective one double-loop learning.

Argyris has made significant contributions to theorizing of Organisational Behavior. His proposal can be understood as implying that

Double loop theory is based upon a “theory of action” perspective outlined by Argyris & Schon … This perspective examines reality from the point of view of human beings as actors. Changes in values, behavior, leadership, and helping others, are all part of, and informed by, the actors’ theory of action. An important aspect of the theory is the distinction between an individual’s espoused theory and their “theory-in-use” (what they actually do); bringing these two into congruence is a primary concern of double loop learning. Typically, interaction with others is necessary to identify the conflict.

Pressure for results

My belief remains that projects engaging teams in creative activities are promising opportunities for learning about learning (double-loop learning). The most promising opportunities are those with extended projects. These have been found to occur when they are part of lengthier educational processes. Even then, pressures for results tempt a majority of teams to stick too closely to concerns for short-term performance outcomes and course grades. With appropriate mentorship the teams are better able to confront the ambiguities of their situations.

What do you think?

So, what do you think? I’d like to hear other experiences and views on the nature of creative leadership. This will be incorporated in a subsequent post, which will also include findings from a forthcoming issue of the Creativity and Innovation Management Journal which examines the links between leadership and creativity.

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4 Responses to What is creative leadership?

  1. AlexHough says:

    Creative people, offering some kind of leadership seem to exist in the realm of pop music. Bono and Geldoff immediately spring to mind, but there are other figures. Gilberto Gil is Minister for culture in Brazil – be was widely praised at the recent Furturesonic conference on social media and introducing video technology based on the Open Source Linux to push development of computer skills via the production of culture.

    Indirectly rock stars seem to fill the imagination of leaders. One only has to listen to Desert Island Disks to hear the impact. Recently Ex-BBC head honcho Greg Dyke’s choice of Bob Dylan’s ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ is a recent example, but many leaders seem to signal that rock music acts as a catalyst for change in their own minds and motivates them to challenge the status quo.

  2. Ian Major Brewster says:

    I agree Alex, but there are plenty of examples when rock music takes a hold of MPs’ imaginations in a way that can only be described as cringeworthy. Take Charles Kennedy’s love of David Bowies’s Heroes for example. Imagine Charlie crooning away in his hairbrush knowing he’ll never be a hero. I can’t think of a more teeth-grindingly embarassing scene. Then there’s Tony Blair’s love of Tom Petty. I can no longer listen to Petty’s hit, I won’t Back Down, without thinking of Blair sharpening his resolve and determinedly ploughing ahead with reforms that no one wants. To top it all though is Michael Howard’s choice of Bryan Adams’ hit ‘(Everything I do) I do it for you’ as his favourite record. I shudder to think of how this could have inspired him to labour under the delusion that his ghastly policies were for the benefit of everyone.

    Perhaps the moral of this tale is that creativity can often have an intoxicating effect on dull people and lead to frightening consequences.

    Incidentally, was David Cameron’s self confessed love of Pulp (and quite possibly Common People) behind his Grammar Schools policy departure one wonders?

  3. Tudor says:

    I can feel a research project (if not a song) coming on. Thanks Alex and Ian.

    Might if be a version of the zillion salary men who have kariokied away at My Way? And did you catch the sad tale recently of the security guard who cracked and literally terminated both song and the performer?

  4. [...] earlier post examined the links between leadership and creative problem-solving. Here we import the essential elements of that post and relate them to the challenges of creative [...]

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