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How to resolve the dilemma of creative leadership development



In studies by IBM (2010) and the World Economic Forum (2015), CEOs of the world’s leading corporations identified creativity as the essential leadership skill. When IBM surveyed the Chief Human Resources Officers in 2011, however, two out of three reported that they failed to develop more creative leaders. Why? Because of the dilemma of creative leadership development.

Why is creative leadership on the rise?

In recent years, creative leadership has emerged as a new niche domain in the wider field of leadership and management studies driven by a number of meta-factors:

  • In the past two decades, humanity has evolved from the knowledge economy into the “creative economy” or “innovation economy.” 
  • Moreover, while the second half of the 20th century’s business environment was rather static, companies now need to successfully maneuver the VUCA world of the early 21st century. (VUCA stands for volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity). In line with a concept by James Canton, we may also say that doing business in the early 21st century really SUCCS, as it’s characterized by increasing speed, constant uncertainty and risks, mounting complexity, exponential change, and daily surprises. 
  • Finally, in 2020, we’ve just started the Sixth Wave of leading technological development. The Sixth Wave will bring us a digital, ecological, and human-centered transformation of economies that will require business leaders to operate on higher levels of human consciousness. 

What is the way to lead an organization in a highly fluid VUCA world that SUCCS, in the age of the innovation economy and the Sixth Wave advent? Creative leadership. 

What is the dilemma of creative leadership development?

The dilemma of creative leadership development can be found in the nature of the beast: an effective creative leadership development method needs to be creative itself or run counter to traditional leadership development programs. The authors of the IBM 2011 Chief Human Resources Officers Study described this catch-22 as follows:

“To instill the dexterity and flexibility necessary to seize elusive opportunity, companies must move beyond traditional leadership development methods and find ways to inject within their leadership candidates not only the empirical skills necessary for effective management, but also the cognitive skills to drive creative solutions. The learning initiatives that enable this objective must be at least as creative as the leaders they seek to foster.” —IBM Global Chief Human Resource Officer Study 2011

This insight of the IBM study authors points to what I call the dilemma of creative leadership development:

The Dilemma of Creative Leadership Development:

To be effective, a creative leadership development program must be creative.

The dilemma is fundamentally founded in the fact that high effectiveness and high creativity are opposing forces residing on opposite poles: to be highly effective, we need to typically do certain things that are diametrically different from what we need to do to be highly creative. (In an organizational context, this phenomenon is known as the dilemma of innovation management, which I discussed in an earlier blog article).

The challenge for a creative leadership development program to be highly effective is to develop creative leaders in truly creative ways.

Why is it a dilemma for players in leadership development domain?

Unsurprisingly, and as indicated by the IBM study authors, traditional leadership development programs are not creative in nature. Why?

The leadership domain has evolved as a subdomain of management since the 1980s, based on the empirical study of what practices make exemplary leaders effective while pursuing a vision for their organization. For example, in their model, James Kouzes and Barry Posner identify five practices of exemplary leadership (Model the way. Inspire a shared vision, Challenge the process. Enable others to act. Encourage the heart).

Typical leadership development programs focus on teaching those identified practices that make an exemplary leader effective using traditional pedagogical elements (such as lectures and case studies). Few features of these programs are creative, if any.

What does it mean to develop creative leaders creatively?

Using a product-based perspective, we define creativity at Thinkergy with a simple equation in line with the set theory: 

CREATIVITY = (NOVEL ∩ ORIGINAL ∩ MEANINGFUL) IDEAS

What are the consequences of linking this definition of creativity to the dilemma of creative leadership development? A creative leadership development program must be novel, original, and meaningful to qualify as creative. Thereby these definition criteria of creativity apply not only to the what and why of the course (theoretical contents and underlying rationales), but also to its how (methodology and underlying pedagogy used to animate it) and —often overlooked— to the who (course creator and educator).

As such, creative leadership development programs need to use a highly creative methodology and pedagogy created by a creative leader and delivered by her or another creative person. This is because if any of these elements were not creative, the program would not be effective (in producing CREATIVE leaders).

How to resolve the dilemma of creative leadership development?

Interestingly, the first practice of an exemplary leader identified in Kouzes and Posner’s model brings us back to the core of our dilemma: Model the way. A creative leader leading a creative organization (or one in creative transformation) needs to be authentically creative to be effective. And a program that aims to develop such authentic creative leaders needs to be creative to be effective, too. 

What does this mean? And how can this be achieved? To qualify a creative leadership program as creative, its methodology, pedagogy, and key people need to be creative:

  • A creative methodology needs to introduce a novel model or conceptual take on creative leadership; it needs to have some original ideas that go beyond copying what others have been doing so far; and this means that it needs to be meaningful with regards to providing the contents needed to transform a manager or standard business leader into a genuinely creative leader.
    • Michael Gelb created course programs based on books modeling the ways of creative leaders such as Leonardo da Vinci or Thomas Edison. 
    • In a book series of the same title, Robert Dilts described the Strategies of Genius through the lens of Neuro-linguistic programming (NLP), a creative approach of using the NLP methodology and language to understand what’s going on in a genius mind.
    • The model used in Thinkergy’s creative leadership program (Genius Journey) focuses on creative mindsets development and proposes a novel hierarchy and a meaningful sequence of how these mindsets need to be acquired. I originally developed the model after investigating the mindsets of geniuses and exemplary creative leaders following two personal Eureka experiences in 1997 and 2003.
  • A creative pedagogy needs to include novel modes of teaching, an original delivery and learning style, and a meaningful flow of activities to allow creative leader candidates to learn, apply and internalize the program-specific knowledge, skills, and experiences.
    • The pedagogy in our Genius Journey program is conceptually founded in an ages-old advanced creative thinking strategy, a metaphor: “Developing yourself into a creative leader is like going on a journey to rediscover your genius.” We take learners on excursions to visit unusual destinations that relate to the session contents and allow for doing related exercises and activities to animate the creative leader mindsets taught. Insofar, we adopted elements of experiential learning theory but interpreted and animated them in novel, original and meaningful ways.

Genius Journey excursion to the “Garden of Change” — creative leader candidates getting ready for the Genius Exercise “Be like water”

  • The people involved in the course program creation and delivery need to be authentic creative leaders, too.
    • In the 1980s, Michael Ray launched a pioneering Business Creativity course at Stanford University. In his book Creativity in Business, Professor Ray described that he invited a creative leader of a Silicon Valley company to visit the class and give evidence on the creative practices and attitudes taught in the course. 
    • In longer Genius Journey programs, all creative leader candidates have to identify a “genius mentor” (a creative leader they admire). They then study the ways of thinking and doing things of their chosen mentor using biographies and other source material and finally present their findings to all other learners in the cohort. This practice allows learners to “get into the minds” of outstanding creative leaders (see this earlier blog article for more information).
    • Who qualifies to develop creative leaders and deliver a creative leadership program? Someone who is a creative leader or a person operating on a high level of consciousness who also regularly practices her creativity. For example, a spiritual teacher (one that is not mentally constrained by the rigid dogma of a religion) might be a better person to instruct and develop a creative leader apprentice than a typical business coach, trainer or consultant, because they operate on higher levels of human consciousness.

Conclusion: Creativity triggers effectiveness in creative leadership development

The dilemma of creative leadership development explains why many organizations fail to develop creative leaders effectively. There are but a few creative leadership development programs out there that are truly creative in nature and also delivered by an authentic creative (leader). Fortunately, I can state humbly and confidently that the Genius Journey program that I’ve created for Thinkergy is one of these few creative leadership programs that are truly creative and thus effective. 

How can I be so confident that, in fact, we’ve successfully solved the dilemma? A number of research studies confirm that our Genius Journey program is truly transformational and effective in its aim to develop genuinely creative leaders because it is based on a methodology and pedagogy that is highly creative, and as such, effective.

© Dr. Detlef Reis 2020. The article is published in the Thinkergy Blog on September 10, 2020, and is earmarked to be re-published in the Bangkok Post on October 8, 2020.

Title photo: Genius Journey excursion to the “Mall of Vanity.”
Creative leader candidates experience people’s responses to them touring a luxury shopping mall wearing masks that symbolize the “social masks” most people are wearing: 2 out of 3 people don’t realize the unusual activity as they’re hanging on their smartphones, are absorbed by inner thought, or narrowly focus only on themselves and close surroundings. 1 in 3 people gets angry or is visible annoyed by the masked people. And 1 in 3 people enjoys and cheers the unique group initiative. Interestingly, these proportions roughly correspond to how people respond to an innovation that enters the world (in line with Roger’s diffusion of innovation theory).