The Quandary of Creativity in Leadership

As an executive coach I spend a fair amount of time working with clients to help them find a deeper understanding of themselves, their relationships, and their environments.  To discover the disconnects that may occur between their perceptions and their actions.  Through this process of cultivating self-awareness and social awareness, a new level of consciousness can emerge.  Step-by-step, the competencies of self management and relationship management open the door for self-mastery to take root in business leaders.  Leaders capable of inspiring, motivating, and fully engaging, both cognitively and emotionally, those they lead.  Leaders that refuse to be constrained by dogma and outdated thinking.  Leaders that have the courage to kindle and embrace not only their own creativity, but the creativity of their entire organization.

One of the most common disconnects I see is the one that occurs between our intentions and our behaviors.  It is part of our human nature.  How many of us intend to lose a few pounds but put off dieting or working out because we’re simply so busy?  A classic disconnect between our good intentions and the behaviors that would deliver the desired results.  This is why we incorporate the research from Applied Behavioral Economics in our process.  The fact is, we humans simply aren’t all that rational in our decision making processes.  How we feel about things, how we perceive things, strongly influences our corresponding behavior.  I recently saw an astounding example of this playing out from the results of a new, Cornell University research study and a relatively recent CEO survey conducted by IBM.

Early in 2010, IBM surveyed more than 1,500 CEOs operating in sixty-six countries, identifying the most critical leadership competencies companies need for future success.  The most important attribute identified was the need for creativity.  Not just in the leader, but in the leader’s ability to tap into the creativity of the entire organization.  In reading this survey I was greatly encouraged.  Finally, I thought, business leaders were beginning to see (and to paraphrase Albert Einstein) the level of thinking that got us here is not the same level of thinking necessary to move us forward.  Innovation demands creativity and the unique nature of the global economic climate we now find ourselves in demands it as well.  This recognition for the need of creativity is, perhaps, an early indicator that businesses are recognizing the old paradigms of command-and-control management are limited in a world that is shaped by the  rapid-fire development and commercialization of intellectual property.

Additional management research supports the CEOs’ desire for creativity in leadership.  A canvasing of the literature reveals nine studies that concur; creative leadership enables leaders to steward companies in profitable new directions.  Creative leadership is also proven to be more effective at championing positive change and inspiring associates than leaders that lack this attribute.

And then the disconnect was revealed…

In their study titled, “Recognizing Creative Leadership:  Can Creative Idea Expression Negatively Relate to Perceptions of Leadership Potential?”, Jennifer Mueller, Jack Goncalo, and Dishan Kamdar revealed a startling reality.  Through their research, they suggest the expression of creative thinking by up-and-coming executives could be derailing their opportunities for advancement.  Perceptions of prototypical leaders favors those that will sustain the status quo by maintaining the same level of thinking that created the status quo.  In Applied Behavioral Economics this is referred to as a heuristic, or rule-of-thumb perception people use when evaluating complex decisions.  To quote the study, “Indeed, this bias in favor of selecting less creative leaders may partially explain why so many leaders fail (Hogan & Hogan, 2001), and why so many groups resist change (Argyris, 1997), as the leaders selected may simply lack the openness to recognize solutions that depart from what is already known.”

We live in an age defined by adaptive challenges, a concept first put forth by Ronald A. Heifetz and Marty Linsky in their book, “Leadership on the Line, Staying Alive Through The Dangers Of Leading” (2001, Harvard Business School Press, Boston, MA).  Traditionally, companies faced technical challenges, fairly routine obstacles in which leadership had the answers at hand.  Adaptive challenges confront leadership with obstacles in which they do not have the answers.  These challenges emerge when seismic shifts (in technology, geopolitical influences, or macro-economic forces) occur that change the entire landscape.  This is the landscape we find ourselves in today and, I think we can agree, will most likely find ourselves in for the remainder of our careers.  The only way to address adaptive challenges is to discover the answers along the journey (there’s no pause button on a business) and to continuously seek innovative ways of staying ahead of the curve.  Discovery requires creativity.  Innovation demands it.

So how do we go about reconciling this disconnect?  The first step towards resolution lies in awareness.  The quote above points to the solution, “…simply lack the openness to recognize…”.  By elevating executive self-awareness and social awareness, professionals can begin to set down their limiting perceptions and rules-of-thumb.  As the competencies of self management and relationship management emerge, leaders can more fully engaged both their own creativity and begin to cultivate the creative talent that is often lying dormant throughout their organization.

While management fads may come and go, the professional and personal development reflected in presence and awareness is constant to the human condition.  Companies are beginning to recognize the need for creativity in leadership.  Those that move decisively to cultivate these competencies are positioning themselves to win in the twenty-first century.

© 2011, Terry Murray

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Filed under Leadership Development, Organizational Culture

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