What makes a great creative leader?

Image from Stanley Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket.

Image from Stanley Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket.

In my career I’ve had the privilege of working with some truly amazing (and also some truly ridiculous) creative leaders.

Regular readers of this journal will know that I don’t believe in hierarchical structures in a design-led business. I believe that the days of the single, name-on-the-door, all-deciding, buck-stops-with-me creative director are well and truly over. Or at the very least, limited to the back alleys of ageing industries.

To preface this post, when I refer to a ‘creative leader’, I am not limiting my reference to a person with the words ‘design’ and/or ‘creative’ in their job title. It includes them, and it also includes some of the most inspirational, creative people I’ve met that didn’t necessarily need to be a person with a job title, or ego to match.

The agency businesses which will innovate and evolve, are the ones that are embracing a flatter, more collaborative organisational structure where people of various skill sets work together, playing towards their strengths and working on one another’s weaknesses. 

These businesses make products, work ‘with’ clients not ‘for’ them, they embrace failure as a way of learning and leave ‘precious’ at the door.

And these organisations are steered by and include leaders with an equal measure of empathy, creativity and entrepreneurship at their heart.

Seniority still exists in these organisations. Some of us own businesses and tend to have more responsibilities and accountabilities than others; some roles are a little more complex than others, having to deal with client-facing and commercial issues, solving different types of problems.

This is the reality of business but it doesn’t mean that you, as a new and emerging entrant into the industry are less important than anyone else.

A creative leader contributes to a culture of creativity, irrespective of their seniority in the business.

A creative leader is not the senior-most Designer in the organisation. I’ve known finance and management people who have demonstrated more creativity in their approach to problem solving than most Designers they’ve worked with.

I’ve also known senior creative people who couldn’t tell you the difference between a creative strategy and a pineapple — and had too big an ego to admit they didn’t know. 

Conversely, I’ve met young designers who’ve demonstrated these traits in their job interview and have emerged to be the greatest most productive assets our business has ever had.

In summary, if you’re out to demonstrate your own creative leadership abilities, don’t chase the fucking title, just embrace the following traits knowing that a great creative leader is at the very least, the sum of them.

Don’t be busy being busy. Be productive and enable others to be great.

I have worked with some people who have thought of themselves as leaders yet in fact, when I look back they were nothing more than out to hide their own insecurities and weaknesses by projecting them on others.

I used to work for one guy who would pre-fill his calendar with meetings and ‘things to do’ and would consistently be found sitting in meetings insisting on having another meeting to ensure that everything was covered off.

In reality—and in hindsight—he had enormous potential but had no idea how to use it. He was a non-contributor who preferred to spend his energy trying to look busier than everybody else and hiding his weaknesses and insecurities in an attempt to look like a leader, but he was simply a disorganised mess.

The great creative leaders I’ve known were busy for a reason. They were busy helping others to become great. They were coaches and teachers, not managers.

The great creative leader doesn’t have meetings to organise meetings—they’re productive and busy making things happen.

Know you’re not the smartest person in the room and don’t try to be

One of the youngest people I’ve worked with (from memory I think she was 22 when we first worked together) demonstrated most of the traits great creative leaders have.

One of them was the ability to acknowledge that she didn’t know or understand something. 

This simple thing, is a sign of maturity and professionalism.

There’s a lot she didn’t know, yet she made it her business to go and find out when she needed to, and that’s the key.

If there’s something you don’t know, ask. If there’s something you don’t understand, ask. If someone hasn’t made themselves clear (especially when they’re briefing you on a job), ask them to be more clear. It’s their job to help you understand.

Admit when you’re wrong and know that you’re often wrong.

Often, my day starts with a healthy and heated discussion with my Studio Manager about scheduling and planning of people and projects. 

We’re both very open and honest with one another and we’re often apologising to one another for a mistake we made or an assumption or a conclusion we leapt to, far too quickly.

We both know that we’re both striving for simplicity and empowering our teams to do great work—and we fight for that.

I appreciate and respect these discussions so much, simply because of these three things:

  1. They always end in a simple solution that pleases everyone, and;
  2. I’m always wrong, and he’s always wrong, but together, we both arrive at the truth and find the right solution, and;
  3. They’r healthy and respectful.

This is what makes true collaborative, creative leadership work.

Be the catalyst for change.

A great leader, creative or otherwise embraces change. They don’t fear it, they seek it. Change to them is an opportunity for innovation. 

The creative leader who constantly seeks improvement is going to be the catalyst for change in their organisation irrespective of their seniority in the business.

The potential that you have as a young, dynamic and emerging talent in the industry to be this catalyst, is undeniably enormous. If you are surrounded by people who will encourage you to learn, grow and evolve as a designer, you have the platform to achieve great things.

In the early 2000s, after the dust had settled from the bursting of Internet 1.0’s bubble, I found myself working for a maverick Managing Director of a digital agency. 

This guy was a cowboy. The type that would throw caution to the wind by shifting priorities each day to focus on the newest opportunity that came his way. He was all in or nothing, and this meant we were constantly on our toes; adrenaline pumping.

Each day was the beginning of something new. New teams would come in to finish off older projects and we would be constantly be shifting onto new projects, new clients, new products. We would have to hack together solutions for new technologies that hadn’t really been tested as yet. 

Reliable? No. 
Inspirational and exciting? Absolutely. 
Would I work with him again? Without a doubt.

Create the conditions for creativity.

I don’t believe I’ve worked with someone yet who has truly achieved this. Part of me thinks that it may be a myth that the great creative leaders we all know have created environments where creativity shines and thrives.

We’ve all heard about the Googelplex, the relatively new Apple HQ and the other creative environments where people gather to do the best work of their career. Or so it seems.

The true creative leader will fight to the death for processes, methods and environments that foster creativity — not hinder it. This isn't to say that they will go all out to fill an office with designer furniture and over-priced artwork — instead they will listen to their teams and create conditions for them that allow them to do their best work.

Leave your ego and its ego at the door.

The fundamental thing with great creative leaders is that they know that it’s not about their creativity but their team’s.

If you’re so concerned and worried about your own strengths at the mercy of the process and the success the team that you’re in and this around—you’re missing the point.

Teacher, Coach and Mentor.

I've worked with so many managers. People who administer and manage with a top-down view of the people that work for them. I would never consider these people leaders. 

A leader is someone who teaches those around him every day of the week. They see themselves as a coach and mentor, not a manager with direct reports.

If your superiors aren't teaching you, coaching you or mentoring you — find new ones.

Always hire people better than you.

One of the more inspiring leaders I’ve worked with in my career was the owner of a small digital agency here in Melbourne. He was one of the strongest graphic designers I’ve worked with in the last 25 years. 

His ability on and off the tools was a joy to watch.

If anyone could be criticized of having an ego, he would. But he was the first to acknowledge that he would go out of his way to hire people that were better than him. And he did.

The team he built around us at that time, were and are still some of the best talent going around. 

He relished it when an intern came to him with a new experiment they were tinkering with. He encouraged others to be better.

And through this, he became better.

Fail fast, fail often, fail forward—and always ask for feedback.

Receiving feedback well doesn’t begin with you explaining why you did something a certain way. This is simply the surest way to display your insecurity.

Don’t be afraid to fail. 

A strategist I once worked with in a digital agency in Brisbane, Australia would continually say to the team after each briefing— ‘let’s go, fail fast’.

What he meant was that we were to generate as many ideas as possible and fail as quickly as we possibly could. Not holding back and waiting for the great ideas to arrive — but rather letting the bad ideas out and learning from them.

Many people like this idea of failing forward, and not fearing failure, but when it comes to practice, they struggle with it. 

They still polish the one idea they first came up with, frightened that it will be the only one. Doing so is like getting married on the first date.

This is the true path to the greatest ideas.

Diversity.

A great creative leader understands that they will get the best result from their teams, by diversifying their interests. 

The more diverse the opinions that contribute to ‘the work’, the better, more creative the idea.

Their teams are from all walks of life. From all over the world with real-world, global, interesting and diverse backgrounds and experiences.

When it comes to developing ideas, their first thought is how quickly they can mix up the people in their teams whilst retaining the integrity of having the best people, the right people on the job.

Diversity, be it ethnic, social, gender or other is so very important in our social construct anyway—the creative team should mirror this.

Focus on your weaknesses.

True leaders know that focussing only on your strengths will mean you’re weaknesses get weaker. Every day, every week, you should be doing something to improve a weakness.

Too many people I have worked with in my career run away from things ‘they’ve never done before’ or are new to. I’ve heard the craziest excuses as to why a designer or project manager ‘can’t’ work on a digital or strategy project. ‘Digital’ and ‘Strategy’ being the two scariest words in their vocabulary. 

When you’re faced with the unknown, don’t run.

Embrace it.

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