Six ways to foster creative leadership at work
Everyone can be creative. Everyone has leadership potential.
Most of the successful leaders that I know today were not considered leaders when they were younger. That perceived privilege seemed to go to the tallest, loudest, ‘most alpha’ figures in the room. However, many of us do not fit that description and can feel excluded by basic personal characteristics such as age, ability, gender or race. Yet everyone has leadership capability, but for many of us this is ignored or even actively suppressed.
This started me on a path of lifelong learning around leadership. After working in the creative industry on international projects with governments, communities and business, two ideas have emerged that have driven my research. The first is that most of what most of us are taught about leadership is wrong! The second is that the world needs leaders who are more creative.
At the heart of creative leadership are three simple yet powerful values that we all have access to:
- Creativity – a universal ability to develop solutions that positively impact ourselves and others
- Empathy – the hallmark of a 21st-century leader
- Clarity – the missing link in aligning vision, direction and communication
These three values – creativity, empathy and clarity – are key to becoming a creative leader. Together they form and inform ideas.
The leadership landscape is changing, and we must embrace a more creative stance. A creative leader can adapt to leadership that is more dynamic than static, and multi-perspective rather than a single point of view. Creative leaders are a new breed, who can call out and step beyond outdated leadership that is hierarchical, process-driven, inflexible, and does not account for people.
I have spent years looking into what makes a creative leader, drawing on my work at the Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design at London’s Royal College of Art, where we have completed over 300 projects with nearly 200 organisations. Findings drawn from this catalogue of experience now informs our leadership model.
Creative leadership is about personal and organisational transformation. It is enabled through workshops and training that we deliver, allowing people to tap into their inner potential and lead others. Although it draws from the creative industries, it is not exclusively for them.
Here are six ideas for you to implement that can help evolve your leadership presence.
- Management is only a part of leadership
Leadership is not the same as ‘management’. Many leadership positions simply call for individuals with basic managerial skills. Yes, it is important to balance a budget, manage people and meet deadlines, but true leadership goes beyond this. It is also about inspiring a vision, recognising the human strengths and capabilities and growing others.
Do not aim to ‘be a boss’. Give people encouragement and they will self-regulate, self-organise, self-energise and be enthusiastic. Live these qualities yourself, and you will instil them in others. Passion is infectious. See people as human beings rather than resources on a spreadsheet. A simple test: do you know anything about the people you lead in terms of their lives, aspirations and perspectives? If you do not, you have some exciting work to do.
- Empower people by giving them permission to express themselves creatively
Creative leaders empower people to bring their voices and ‘living experience’ to the table. This allows for diverse human perspectives that can help shift your workplace towards an attitude of peer-to-peer exchange. See people as valued contributors and partners in every engagement.
Giving people permission to be their creative self can be magical. Creativity sits at the heart of every project and workshop I have run. The simple act of asking people to step beyond the limited expression of digital office tools and come into a creative space opens up so many possibilities – after all, did inspiration ever come from a spreadsheet? Or did it come from real people with real ideas?
- Listen carefully, select wisely and act promptly
Grow your clarity. Clarity is the most understudied of our three values but it works hand-in-hand with creativity. Calling for a clearness of purpose, communication, project scope, roles and deliverables, and aligning intent, processes, methods and teams, is essential to success. Without clarity, creativity is diminished and you can fall at the first hurdle.
We seek different types of clarity, especially in the workplace. Cognitive clarity, conceptual clarity and emotional clarity are a few examples. There are many different methods to get there, such as clarity by logic, questioning, hypothesising, observing or immersing, just to name a few. Train yourself in giving clarity.
- Make sure that your leadership is not about constant turmoil and turnover
It is important to usher in times of play and peace, when work can happen in unthreatened joy. People function better if they can harmonise strategic activities with operational need, and incremental movement with occasional periods of disruptive thinking. As a leader, create spaces that will attract people, especially post-lockdown. Many knowledge workers do not want to feel that they are on a production line. They want to connect with other humans, to gossip, to moan, to laugh and interact. Create active strategies that enable concentration and contemplation as well as collaboration.
- Ask these three questions:
Many people and organisations want to re-humanise leadership, so these three questions summarise their collective ask:
- What if … leadership is not limited to business and management but is actually able to enhance all aspects of your life?
- What if … you were not required to divide your identity anymore but could be more holistically ‘you’ in any given context?
- What if … leadership values could be evolved by groups other than business gurus or change consultants and could include people across the human experience … even creatives?
Our individual wisdoms should not be left at the door when we put on our suits, switch on our computers and step into the workplace. Encourage authenticity, not split personalities where you are completely different at work and at home, and true to yourself in neither space!
- Inject a little joy into your every day
Build on this simple practice. As a leader, you will be tested. There will be times when everything will happen at once and your belief in yourself will be tested. People look outside themselves for both cause and solution when a challenging situation arises, so as your own creative leader make sure that you also look within.
Seek those experiences that revive you, such as a simple beverage break, watching a sunset, or having a child fall asleep in your arms, and make sure that joy is a hallmark of your day.
So finally, how do you activate this? Well, creative leadership provides a way to enable and activate the three values of empathy, clarity and creativity individually and organisationally. Born from a collaboration with neuroscience, it proposes powerful tools and techniques that can grow and apply these ideas for you. Importantly, they can help you step into your own strengths and be the leader that you want to be. Their effect can be immediate.
Rama Gheerawo, pictured below, is director at The Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design, Royal College of Art and author of Creative Leadership: Born from Design. Look out for our interview with Rama in July where we’ll be exploring this issue in more depth. Sign up to the newsletter now so you don’t miss it!