Monday, December 13, 2010

Big Question: What are the Natural Relationships between Creativity and Leadership?

written by Amy Frazier

Every two years, IBM undertakes a global survey of CEOs on the most pressing issues facing organizational leaders worldwide. The 2010 report, entitled Capitalizing on Complexity, lists three best practices for succeeding in an increasingly complex environment. Their top recommendation: “embody creative leadership” (p. 10).

Two impressions jump out from this compact phrase. The first: the implication that leadership itself must be creative, beyond––but certainly including––the need to employ creative thinking; the second: the notable use of the word “embody” to convey a deep-seated sense of both creativity and leadership as arising from within the self, permeating behavior and bearing, and informing engagement with the world.

To discuss creative leadership is to invite questions on the connection between the two constructs. How might creativity and leadership be related, and what might be the elements supportive of or relating to their connection? I approach the question from three angles: what are some of the internal mechanisms creativity and leadership share in common; in what situations might we naturally find creativity and leadership working in tandem; and finally, how do creativity and leadership align with personal development in the embodying of creative leadership?

Identifiable, but Eluding Definition

While we implicitly recognize both creativity and leadership when they occur (Sternberg, 2003; Bass, 1990), in their study they have been subject to numerous definitions, diverse theories, and occasionally contradictory historical perspectives (Bass, 1990; Davis, 2004, Sternberg, 2003). Among current attempts to integrate various theoretical strands of creativity include the work of Sternberg and Lubart (1995), Woodman and Schoenfeld (1990), and Puccio and Murdock (1998). Similarly, Avolio (2007), Bennis (2007), Fleishman, Mumford and Zaccaro (1991), Mumford, Zaccaro, Connelly and Marks (2000), and Sternberg (2008) are recent contributors to the effort to integrate leadership theory. Yet universally agreed-upon definitions of both remain elusive. As Warren Bennis (2007) put it, “it is almost a cliche ́of the leadership literature that a single definition of leadership is lacking” (p. 2). As for defining creativity, “it’s like nailing jello to the wall” (Murdock, 2009).

Given that both creativity and leadership are multivariate constructs, their connections will manifest in a variety of ways. While far from comprehensive, we can begin with an exploration of some of the mechanisms supporting creativity and leadership by looking at cognitive and affective dispositions, keeping an eye on the issue of complexity.

Cognition in Creativity and Leadership

Approaching creativity from a cognitive perspective involves looking at how cognitive processes “operate on stored knowledge to yield ideas that are novel and appropriate to the task at hand” (Ward & Kolomyts, 2010, p. 93). Associative mechanisms play an important role in linking various cognitive elements of stored knowledge in the form of images, thoughts, memories, etc. (Kaufman, Kornilov, Bristol, Tan & Grigorinko, 2010). The ability to broadly associate is also linked to cognitive and creative development: “cognitively complex individuals...use more categories or dimensions to discriminate among stimuli and see more commonalities among these categories or dimensions” (Hooijburg, Hunt & Dodge, 1997 p. 378).

Similarly, effective leadership in a complex environment requires pattern recognition and the ability to spot opportunities others may miss (Mumford, Connelly & Gaddis, 2003), as well as being able to transcend cognitive traps which may block these insights (Katz-Buonincontro, 2008). Gardner (1995) has heralded the cognitive role of frames of reference, especially those encoded in stories, as being key to leadership effectiveness. Duggan (2007) suggested that when faced with novel and complex situations, the leader’s encoded knowledge and pattern recognition is made available through creative recombination, in an phenomenon he calls strategic intuition. Caughron, Shipman, Beeler and Mumford (2009) proposed that people who use mental models to “draw attention to change indicators relevant in the situation at hand will be more likely to recognize emergent change events” (p. 15). This ability to identify and draw attention to emerging events was echoed in the IBM (2010) report: “both new threats and emerging opportunities require an ability to see around corners, predict outcomes where possible, act despite some uncertainty and then start over again” (p. 27).

In both creativity and leadership, cognitive complexity, including the ability to relate across frameworks and categories, paves the way for new thinking, innovation, sensemaking, story-making, and the ability to identify creative and leadership opportunities.

Affect and Emotional Intelligence in Creativity and Leadership

Affect, our emotional or attitudinal valence, serves not only as an inner thermostat of our felt experience, but is also linked to cognition. Developing our emotional intelligence provides us “with the capability to use emotions to contribute to the effective cognitive processing of information” (Zhou & George, 2003, p. 554). In his work with emotional intelligence, Goleman (1998) stated that “coming up with a creative insight is a cognitive act––but realizing its value, nurturing it and following through calls on emotional competencies such as self-confidence, initiative, persistence and the ability to persuade” (p. 100). Zhou and George (2003) echoed Goleman: “Creative activities are affect-laden” (p. 545). Puccio, Murdock and Mance (2007), in their Thinking Skills Model of Creative Problem Solving (CPS), plumb this territory in identifying key affective skills which support each of the six CPS creative-thinking process steps, from “dreaming” to “sensing gaps,” as well as singling out three overall affective skills necessary for productive creative thinking throughout the process: openness to novelty, tolerance for ambiguity, and tolerance for complexity (p. 52).

Leaders, too, benefit from awareness of affect, emotional intelligence, and understanding of the way in which emotion impacts cognition. “Emotions have the potential to effect leader cognition and behavior in a number of ways,” (Hoojiburg & Hunt, 1997, p. 383), including when the leader reverts to familiar emotional scripts; relies upon emotion as a method of interpreting others (especially when the information presented is novel and complex); and when faced with high-emotion situations. Zhou and George (2003) propose that the missing piece in understanding the basis of leadership behavior is to be found in a deeper appreciation of emotional intelligence. Their exploration centers specifically on the ways in which the leader’s emotional intelligence may support and enhance employees’ creativity.

To take an example in the context of leadership theory, transformational leadership has been identified as a style of creative leadership (Sternberg, Kaufman, Pretz, 2003). It would be hard to imagine how transformational leadership could be effective in the deep work of “elevating the follow’s level of maturity and ideals as well as concerns for achievement, self-actualization, and the well-being of others, the organization and society” (Bass, 1999, p.11) without the leader’s skillful use of affect and emotional awareness.

With respect to the issue of managing complexity identified in the IBM (2010) report, we return to Puccio, Murdock and Mance (2007) who stated that the affective skill of tolerance for complexity reflects the ability “to stay open and persevere without being overwhelmed by large amounts of information, interrelated and complex issues, and competing perspectives” (p. 53). The link between this affective awareness and effective leadership is clear.

Creativity and Leadership in Tandem

Having explored how the internal mechanisms of cognition and emotion interact in the dimensions of creativity and leadership, a natural next step is to then take a look at the types of situations wherein the two seem naturally to occur. To return to the earlier observation that such complex constructs as creativity and leadership will manifest in multiple circumstances, I’ve selected three categories: theoretical perspectives which blend the two constructs; deliberate problem solving methods that implicate creativity and leadership in a duet of process; and the particular nested dynamic found in the creative leadership of creative people.

Leadership is Creative; Creativity is Leadership. Sternberg (2003) counted creative intelligence as one aspect of an overall theory of successful intelligence which can be lived out in the domain of leadership: “the three key components of leadership are wisdom, intelligence, and creativity, synthesized” (Sternberg, 2008, p. 361). Deepening the connection, Sternberg (2003) also related a symbiotic relationship between creativity and leadership: creativity “is by its nature propulsion. It moves a field from some point to another. It also always represents a decision to exercise leadership” (p. 125). Therefore, even a creative act which is merely replicative (reproducing a known work or process with slight variance) is “at least, a weak attempt to lead” (p. 141). In their discussion of skill-based leadership, Mumford, Connelly and Gaddis (2003) carve out a specific hierarchy in context: “leader creativity can be viewed as a unique domain-specific form of creative thought” (page 415). Lastly, in a statement that evokes a sense of creative intentionality and leadership self-awareness, Puccio, Murdock and Mance (2007) returned to the question of embodiment: “Effective leaders embody the spirit of creativity” (p. xii).

In this sampling of examples, creativity and leadership in practical context are related by degree: wholly coexisting, but varying in the amount of force (or propulsion); as a skill-based subset of creative thinking; and as a way of being, in embodying effective leadership.

Creative Problem Solving. Leaders are charged with problem solving in multiple contexts, across various and shifting time-frames, impacting diverse stakeholders. Deliberate creative processes such as Creative Problem Solving (CPS) offer a natural opportunity to link the actions and motives of leadership with the dynamics and skills involved in creative thinking. As research and theories continue to build out this connection, a process-based duet between leadership and creativity can be heard.

Puccio, Murdock and Mance (2007) mapped the process steps of Creative Problem Solving onto a template for leadership in the service of change (one which, not incidentally, also interweaves cognitive and affective skills). Interestingly, it was their deep exploration of CPS which drew into the authors’ awarenesses the understanding that leadership and creativity engage certain shared mechanisms, intentions and behaviors. Basadur (2004) advocated the use of creative problem solving processes as a focus of leadership effort, encouraging leaders to move beyond content influence and into creative process leadership. Notable in Basadur’s position is that effective leadership emerges through developing competency in creative process. Similarly, Reiter-Palmon and Illies (2004) dig into creative leadership opportunities and the phases of creative problem solving (which they broadly categorize as idea generation and idea evaluation), both as a descriptive analysis of leader behaviors and to advocate for the process and techniques. In their clear summation: “leaders must understand the cognitive requirements of creative problem solving” (p. 55).

These examples illuminate the natural fit between the leader’s bailiwick of the skillful management of change, and the process dynamics of creative problem solving, and argue for a conscious application of creative thinking in leadership.

Leading Creative People. While some leadership writings seek to merely offer techniques for directing creative employees––such as the slightly tone-deaf advice that the management of “clever people” includes being aware that they “know their worth...have a low boredom threshold...(and) won’t thank you” (Goffee & Jones, 2007, p.6)––Mumford, Scott, Gaddis and Strange (2002) provided more tooth to the topic. “Leadership of creative efforts seems to call for an integrative style—a style that permits the leader to orchestrate expertise, people, and relationships in such a way as to bring new ideas into being” (p. 738). They identified three crucial areas where leadership both allows for and is deeply implicated in organizational creativity, specifically in the creative work of the employees and teams: idea generation, idea structuring and idea promotion (pp. 738-739). In each of these areas, the leader’s own engaged creativity, particular to the leadership position, is essential for success––whether it is in establishing the conditions for productive idea generation, establishing “action or project frameworks” (p. 739) as guidance supports during idea structuring, or in promoting and advocating for the efforts within the organization. Similarly, for Mumford, Connelly and Gaddis (2003), the leader is “a collaborator who provides a critical perspective” and whose value “derives in part from the unique way in which they generate their contribution” (p. 427), akin to those just described.

Creative leadership, as these writings suggest, is creativity manifested by the leader while engaged in leading creative efforts. In order to effectively lead creative people, the leadership, too, must be creative.

Inner Source

Sustained creativity and leadership efforts are time intensive and require focused personal energy (Csikszentmihalyi, 1996; Maxwell, 2007). They also represent a decision to manifest change within one’s environment. (Puccio, Murdock & Mance, 2007; Sternberg, Kaufman, & Pretz, 2003; Sterberg & Lubart, 1995). Since change is implicated, a deep awareness of and sensitivity to the process of change is required, as well as the will to trust that what appears to be stasis, may in fact be in the midst of transformation; and, conversely, to recognize unproductive or untimely changes as they emerge, in order to trim back, pause or redirect. Creativity and leadership also both involve working on an edge between what is and what is emerging on the blank canvas (Scharmer & Kauefer, 2010); the change leader/creator is thus often responding to inputs that others may not perceive, and may be met with resistance (Karp, H.P, 1996; Sternberg & Lubart, 1995). Courage is called forth in both.

All of these aspects highlight, at minimum, the benefit of being well-centered in oneself; at the maximum, the necessity of it. Greater understanding of oneself may be deliberately cultivated through conscious self-development. Of self-development and creativity, Maslow (1962) proposed that the frontier-crossing new ideas sought on both an organizational and personal level arise from the deeper self, which is accessed through self-development and integration. Of self-development and leadership, Joiner & Josephs (2007) offered that “agile leadership and personal development go hand in hand’ (p. 226). Both creativity and leadership can be said to share in the ability to effect personal transformation through self-development.

Creativity and Self Development. The link between creativity and self-development has been elaborated to the point where “the relationship is both a semantic trend and virtually a given” (Davis, 2004, p. 2). Early work done by humanist psychologists such as Maslow (1974) and Rogers (1961) advanced the belief that creativity is not only linked to self-actualization, but in Maslow’s (1976) words “seems to be synonymous with health itself” (p. 92). In the words of May (1975) “The creative process must be the expression of normal people in the act of actualizing themselves” (p. 40).

Leadership and Self-Development. While historical approaches to leadership include the Great Man theory (Bass, 1990), recent explorations attune to more democratically distributed questions of self-awareness and self-development, in a manner akin to the creative self-actualization theories of Maslow, Rogers and May. Among these are:
• transformational leadership, mentioned earlier as being concerned with “achievement, self-actualization, and the well-being of others, the organization and society” (Bass, 1999, p.11)
• integrative leadership, which, according to Avolio (2007) addresses how leaders and followers “view their actual self and translate that into what could be their possible self or selves,” (p. 30)
• intelligent leadership (Sydänmaanlakka, 2008), integrating practical, intellectual, emotional and spiritual components
• transcendent leadership (Crossan, Vera, & Nanjad, 2008), where leadership of others is interwoven with leadership of the organization and, importantly, leadership of the self, evinced by “a high level of self-awareness and deep judgment” (p. 576)
• spiritual leadership (Fry, 2003) which draws upon a leader’s self knowledge
• transformative leadership, whose central focus is on self-creation (Montuori, 2010)
• the Leadership Maturity Framework (Cook-Greuter, 2006), which describes a vertical development of leadership, where the leader is increasingly capable of holding paradox and complexity through self-actualization and the transcending of the ego

All of these theories not only align leadership with personal development, but position such development as fundamental, calling upon the fabric of one’s deep personal orientation to life and the construction of self, meaning and behavior. Taken together, in these examples we can see both creativity and leadership as being rooted in an internal locus, evoking self-development, maturation, mastery, and spiritual growth.

Coinciding, but not Connected?

Whereas the preceding discussion has explored the shared ground of creativity and leadership, the two constructs part ways in at least one significant aspect: that of how the focus of expression involves others. While a person may be creative on his own, purely for his own benefit toward the enhancement of quality of life such as is found in the “happy path” of everyday creativity (Richards, 2007, p. 47), “the only person who practices leadership alone in a room is the psychotic” (Bennis, 2007, p. 3). Leaders attend to, interact with, support, communicate with, redirect, authorize, guide, mentor, regulate, inspire, empower and evaluate those whom they lead. Put another way, while with leadership, you cannot “tickle yourself” (Bavelas, as quoted in Bennis, 2007, p. 3), with creativity, you certainly can.

Following on this distinction, might it be that the two constructs merely coincide under certain conditions, without being fundamentally connected? Or, to go further, might there be situations in which creativity and leadership actually stand in each other’s way?

Clearly, there are areas within each construct which operate powerfully without influence of the other. Everyday creativity need not evoke leadership; well-regarded components of leadership such as trustworthiness need not depend upon being creatively deployed, counting more upon consistency of character and stability of execution. Further, acts representative of the dark side of creativity (Sternberg, 2010) not only may be executed without any of the developmental goals of creative self-actualization, but also absent the transformative goals of many contemporary leadership theories as well.

The act of leadership is associated with influence (Bass, 1990). Not necessarily so the act of creativity. Despite Sternberg and Lubart’s (1995) emphasis on the difference between creative thinking and successful creativity, in that the latter is the actual product of the creative thought and is often brought to bear through skillful influence, it remains that the creative idea may be vital and useful on its own, as in the case of everyday creativity. Creativity is concerned with the new; at times leadership must build upon the stories of tradition and the past (Gardner, 1995). The creator who inappropriately prioritizes influence may fall prey to some “outside temptations and interruptions” thereby squandering precious energies which are best devoted to the act of creating (Csikszentmihalyi, 1996, p.551). The leader who promulgates change and novelty for their own sake risks depriving their followers of the establishment of a stable shared ground of meaning, especially if the leadership story keeps changing (Gardner, 1995).


Creativity and leadership can operate independently of each other; in some occasions, they need to. The question is not, therefore, whether they always march hand in hand, but whether a compelling case can be made for their natural intersections. This returns the conversation to the IBM (2010) findings and the need for leaders to successfully deal with situations of increasing complexity. By understanding certain similarities in complex cognitive and affective processing, by attuning to the situations which invite a synchrony of creativity and leadership, and by drawing awareness to the internal self-development that supports creativity and leadership, capacities for responding to complexity emerge. From our thinking and our feeling states, our problem solving strategies, our leadership with and not just of creativity, and an attention to self-development, the embodiment of creative leadership arises to inform engagement with the world.

Amy Frazier is an organizational development consultant based in Seattle. Her work is focused on organizational creativity, leadership development, Creative Problem Solving, and the role of the arts in exploring complexity, releasing creativity and developing vision. She holds a certificate in Creativity and Change Leadership from SUNY Buffalo, through the International Center for Studies in Creativity.

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