Creativity is a Leader’s not-so-secret Weapon

November 18, 2007

convergence_jackson_pollock.jpgCreativity has always been a powerful attribute of successful leaders. This has become more obviously the case over the last few decades, as leaders are seen to be engaged in creating visions, strategies, products, designs, businesses, and even creative networks. Change involves creative individuals, teams, organizations, and clusters or communities

This post accompanies a presentation on creativity and leadership (fostering creativity)

Creativity has pervaded so many aspects of all our lives. It transcends business life, as it transforms it, and in many of its manifestations it can be linked with leadership.

Definitions, definitions

Like leadership, creativity has acquired a bucket-load of definitions. One explanations of their shared profusion is that both cut across a range of academic and practical domains, so that ‘bottom-up’ and ‘top-down’ definitions have not yet successfully been reconciled. (Will they ever be?)

However, in preparing this, I was somewhat encouraged to find myself able to condense down a lot of the definitions into two robust ones that serve to capture much of the variety. Borrowing from various sources, I offer the all-purpose general suggestion that:

‘Creativity is concerned with discovery processes leading to new and unexpectedly valuable ideas’.

The second suggestion is that creativity occurs when somneone is

‘Looking where all have looked, and seeing what no one has seen’.

Looking but not seeing

The looking and seeing definition is an old favourite of mine. It captures the received wisdom that a creative act for someone, a moment of insight, occurs because many others have looked but not seen. I seem to remember a quote from Lord Chesterfield who confided in a letter that ‘from a hayloft, a horse looks like a violin’. The violin/horse in the presentation illustrates the noble Lord’s insight.

More significantly, the history of creative discovery relates of numerous people who were the first to see something that subsequently established as true (or, in an even more philosophically complex description, ‘truly creative’).

From Archimedes to Alexander Fleming; from Newton, to Mme Curie; from the little boy who saw that the Emperor had no clothes, all have been hailed for their significant moments of insight.

Theories of creativity

The insight school of creativity is but one among various sub-sets within cognitive psychology. Humanistic psychologists have contributed self-actualizing and transcendent theories. Information scientists have offered data-processing models. From rather different directions, we have natural scientists taking an evolutionary stance, and creationists offering their own theological interpretations.

Creativity in action

I want move from more refined theory into creativity in action. In doing so, I borrow a neat taxonomy which I learned from the Hungarian scholar Istvan Magyari-Beck. Isvan proposed some years ago that a new discipline of creatology could be developed, which could be structured into levels of the individual, group, organization and culture.

At each level, different issues arise, although there remains an overriding practical concern that requires some theoretical grounding at each level: How might creativity be fostered?

The creative individual

Magyari-Beck indicated that most studies have been at the level of the creative individual. This was true in the 1980s, and is only marginally different today. One difference is acceptance (particularly through the impact of the work of Teresa Amabile) that creativity is essentially a socially-constructed phenomenon.

Another shift parallel one in leadership research. For as long as they had been studied, Leaders were considered exceptional individuals, with special inherent traits. Only around the 1960s did the trait view of the exceptional leader soften into the situational and contextual view. Even today, the leader as ‘somebody very special’ is a widely-held belief.

Likewise, the creative individual was for a long time considered to be inspired and gifted. Around the time leadership was taking on a more egalitarian hue, educationalists and humanistic psychologists were exploring ‘everyday creativity’. Maslow, Carl Rogers, Fromm and others introduced a wide audience to the notion that ‘we are all creative and have the capacity to achieve that potential’.

The creative group

The creative group has become the shock-force for organizational change. More and more non-routine tasks are conducted in projects. Project teams are expected to show creative skills while seeking goals or targets of the wider organization.

Tuckman’s celebrated four-stage model suggested that all teams develop and change, until they achieve the norm of an effective team work. Rickards & Moger and co-workers at Manchester wondered how teams might be able to outperform expected behaviors. Their answer was through creative efforts which broke through behavioural and structural barriers.

The Creative organization

The creative organization was the subject of one of the earliest texts on creativity. However, it took the rise of the so-called Creative Industries to accelerate interest in such institutional forms. Today, the largest players in the world of electronic, communication and entertainment technologies have exploded into economic and social importance.

Nevertheless, we do well to remember that creative organizations can compete successfully in what appears to be rather ill-favored origins. Toyota, and the Chinese multi-national Haier come to mind.

The Creative culture

And so we reach the highest level of complexity in Magyari-Beck’s taxonomy. His own country had been at one time a hotspot of creative culture. Hotspots from ancient cultural clusters in China, Mesopotamia, Athens, Paris moved to modern hotspots including Cambridge (England and New England), Silicon Valley, even, some say, ‘Madchester’.

Peter Kawalek and his team seem to be rescuing the creativity in Manchester from the Madness.

The still-controversial social scientist Richard Florida is mapping the creative hot spots of the world in increasingly in-depth studies.

To go more deeply

This brief voyage around the world of creativity leaves too many ports of call unvisited. I hope to collect the views of several audiences (including blog readers) which will lead to suggestions for other perspectives.


A Brief history of leadership

October 21, 2007

glass_spiral_staircase.jpgLeaders and leadership continue to capture the public imagination. But there have been few attempts to trace the history of leadership to its earliest manifestations. What can be learned from the hard-wired behaviors of insects, the territorialism of reptiles, the disciplinary schooling of horses, and the social capitalism of chimpanzees?

This post [under development] is based on a presentation to Manchester Business School Alumni in October 2007. You can access the presentation entitled A brief history of leadership here, [accessed via my slideshare powerpoints. Be patient. It does load, in about 15 seconds from my PC! ].

The lecture sets out the case for learning about today’s leadership dilemmas by reference to animal behaviors. This is in some ways a well-trodden path since Desmond Morris reminded us of our kinship with other animals as a naked ape.

The approach has to beware the pitfalls of anthropomorphism (attributing human behaviors to other animals). These challenges have been examined by John Stodart Kennedy as the new anthropomorphism.

These scholars have continued the debate on instinctive behaviors that followed the work of pioneering ethologists such as Nikolaas Tinbergen and Konrad Lorenz.

Drawing on these sources, the lecture argues that our modern concepts of leadership draw on residual ancient forms. Furthermore, our shared concepts and folk-memories contribute to universal archetypes.

It is suggested that as humans, through consciousness and learning, we become and create ‘the leaders we deserve’

Other points of interest: By re-evaluating the role of instinct in behaviors that are considered to exhibit leadership qualities, we approach the ancient question of whether leaders are born or made.

To go more deeply

In preparing the lecture, I drew heavily on the work of Richard Dawkins, and particularly The Ancestor’s Tale.

Anyone with strong creationist beliefs will probably have problems with the Darwinist treatment.


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.


Creative leadership: Workshop presentation

May 4, 2007

How dependent is new product development on creativity, team working, and collaboration? The UK Arts and Humanities Research Council is sponsoring a series of workshops exploring such issues. On May 3rd, 2007, Tudor Rickards presented findings on creative leadership, drawing on extensive studies of MBA project teams at The Manchester Business School.

Background

Salford, once famous for the much-loved TV soap Coronation Street, has taken on a high-tech image. Its vision of a Media-city helped it to beat its larger neighbour Manchester for the prized rehousing of a large chunk of the BBC’s operations. Salford Quays, walking district from Manchester United’s Old Trafford ‘Theatre of Dreams’, has become a trendy waterside address.

The workshop

On May 3rd 2007, Salford University hosted a workshop on the roles of team-working and collaboration in new product development. An invited group of fifty designers, managers and academics took part in the event, which is one of three workshops exploring creativity in design and new product development, sponsored by the British Arts and Humanities Research Council.

Participants were encouraged in advance of the workshop to visit the Leaders We Deserve blog. The presentation on creativity in work groups was crafted to the specified interests of the participants at the workshop. You can access the presentation here, (complete with date error on slide 1)

Creative Leadership and The Manchester Method

Manchester Business School has developed an approach to management education which involves its students in ‘living cases’ through working on projects with organizational sponsors. The design helps integrate direct business experiences with more traditional classroom lectures. The workshop learned of the spin-off findings for creative leadership in business projects.

The research questions

Two research questions were addressed:

How might team creativity be liberated through the application of structured approaches (such as brainstorming and Lateral thinking)?

How might creativity in project teams be assessed?

Experience from several hundred projects over three decades, suggested that a structured creativity approach ‘works’ if the team has a process leader, who is primarily concerned with setting a creative climate for the team, and who helps the team members collaborate and achieve ‘yes and’ rather than ‘either-or’ results from working together.

Assessment of team creativity and creative leadership is carried out through a team factors inventory which has helped identify factors associated with effective team leadership and team performance.

Creative leadership and intrinsic motivation

It was suggested that effective creative leadership provides space within which intrinsic motivation and creativity of team members flourish. The leadership style is characterized as invitational, and trust-based.

Conclusions

Creative leadership remains a topic open to further applied studies. The Manchester Business School approach offers a promising template for such research.


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