What is creative leadership?

June 2, 2007

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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