What is Creative Leadership?


I've been thinking about leadership for a long time. We all have.

Since we graduated from University, we’ve been taught that there will be people whom we should aspire to be like, and at times, follow. When we watch the news, vote and admire role models, we embrace different aspects of leadership. When we landed our first job, we walked the walk of the people who hired us — understanding that they must know what to do because they were there before us.

We’ve all thought about leadership and we’ve all experienced both sides of leadership ourselves on a very personal level. The good kind of leadership which nurtures and provides an environment for us to feel safe and do our best work — and the bad kind that leaves us wondering why we’re allowing them to lead us in the first place.

Throughout my career, I’ve had to deal with all levels of management within an organisation. From coordinators, Managers, Directors and C-Suite Executives and the boards and councils they report to. Today, I deal with CEOs, Executives and board members on a daily basis and am faced with every type of leadership along the good-to-bad spectrum.

I’ve come to learn that leadership; both the good and the bad kind — is constant and interesting, both abstract and definitive. It is both tangible and intangible. We can point to it and at times, we’re bewildered by it.

It’s something that can be both experienced and learned. Something that needs a textbook, analysis and diagnosis; as well as the rubber-hitting-the-road kind of experience which can only be learned by stopping the self-talk, ending the constant wishing/hoping/visioning and getting down to business.

When I refer to leadership, I'm not referring to seniority in position via a job title. I'm not referring to senior management or the CEO directly. Even though these titles may give you the responsibility to lead, they may not necessarily mean that you are in fact a good leader — or able to lead at all!

The job title is the creation of a system — and in our field that blends creativity and commerce you'll find people protecting and sometimes propping up their own job titles to suit themselves. Good leadership is a path of discovery as much as it is an accolade pinned on your lapel or printed on your business card.

And it is this path of discovery that interests me greatly because out of this are born the greatest, most creative leaders. The kind of leaders that rattle cages and challenge the accepted norms of their industries. The kind of leaders that create uncontested market space — unchallengeable and previously unimaginable.

When I refer to 'leadership' as a concept I refer to the incremental growth we experience with maturity, added accountability in our work and personal lives and of course, the responsibility of having to meet the often stressful demands of our lives.

I also refer to the individual type of leadership that is within us — the drive of the entrepreneur, the passion for the hustle and the awareness of our own vulnerabilities. This in itself, a form of self awareness and personal development — an area that our creative industry sorely lacks when it comes to the businesses it runs, the support it provides and the sad state of mental health issues that abound within it.

In my experience over the last three decades, I’ve met people in their late 20s who have displayed leadership attributes far superior to people far more experienced than they. I’ve met people entering our industry from other industries (alas without a ‘creative’ degree) with such a high level of self awareness and leadership potential that it would put any ‘Honours’ student I’ve met to shame.

Time, for these people, will only provide more experiences and the opportunity to craft their own version of good leadership.

My musing here is as much about good leadership as it is about creative leadership.

The Creative Leader was once someone that executed and crafted in the isolation of their own industry whereas today, their skills in lateral thinking, their ability to seek problems and 'embrace the ambiguity' needed to solve them, are in high demand by C-Suite board rooms around the world. The Creative Leader must be a good leader, but they have to lead and use their skills in a domain that for a long time has remained outside their grasp.

The C-Suite boardroom.

Many people I meet within creative industry are seeking a path towards something else, something new. They are seeking a sense of scale and trajectory for their careers and many are asking 'what's next?' simply because in the game of creativity, they have levelled-up to the point of not knowing what happens after they’ve climbed the Ladder of Titles.

Creative Leadership is a framework that can give those who are emerging in our industry — businesses big and small — individuals or small teams within creative industry the path they're seeking to grow.

A framework that includes:

  1. embracing new skills and use them in different domains.

  2. learn how to find problems that lead to the development of improved products and services.

  3. think like an entrepreneur and remove themselves from the dependency on the unpredictable ebb and flow of client work.

  4. learn how to understand empathically to improve their work, but also to improve their own ability to deal with people day-to-day.

  5. understand the need to sell, present and provoke a room of qualified people from a different arena.

  6. grasp the fundamentals of business.

  7. adapt to the changing needs of real people; and

  8. understand how and why people use technology.

  9. build, manage and develop a team of talented creative individuals.

Creative Leadership — good Creative Leadership — should be taught at all levels of tertiary study. It should be a fundamental framework industry associations use to grow everyone within their influence, from the smallest to the largest businesses; from the weakest to the strongest individuals.

Creative Leadership should be measured and awarded.

In the writing of my book, I’ve spent time looking at the traits that make for a great Creative Leader in the hope that you can take them, use them and achieve the things that you’ve dreamt of achieving. In all my reading of good leadership, one thing pops up every single time — standing firm like a beacon at the starting block. This single attribute stands as the first, and most important trait of good leadership.

Self awareness — the ability to understand our own impact as individuals on the world around us. To embrace our vulnerabilities, weaknesses and strengths and reflect on the role we play in shaping the world we inhabit.

Self awareness it seems is the first building block of the makings of a good leader — from Harvard Business Review to the Creative Leaders of IBM, AirBnB, Google, British Airways and others I spoke to in writing this book — all brought up the attribute to reflect on oneself as an impactful contributor to the work they do every single day of their working lives in developing themselves and their teams — not necessarily in that order.

The work of leadership.

A HBR article I recently read grouped four key self awareness archetypes:

Introspectors: Clear on who they are but don’t challenge their own views or search for blind spots by seeking feedback from others. In turn, harming relationships and limiting their own success.

Seekers: Not yet knowing who they are, what they stand for, or how their teams see them and as a result, feeling stuck, frustrated with their own performance and relationships.

Pleasers: So focussed on appearing a certain way to others that they overlook what matters to them. Over time, making choices that aren’t in service to their own success of fulfilment.

Aware: They know who they are, what they want to accomplish and seek out and value other people’s opinions. This is where leaders begin to fully realise the true benefits of self-awareness.

Powerful stuff.

We are living through one of the largest shifts in human communication in our history.

The world is not changing — It has changed and it will continue to do so — which means the role of the Creative Leader will need to evolve with it to ensure they are able to ride that wave of change, evolve with it and not remain redundant, left-behind and invisible.

That includes you and I