From effective managers to authentic creative leaders
From effective managers to authentic creative leaders
May 21, 2023
Many of you know that I am not only the creative leader of Thinkergy, but also a professor at various Asian universities. Over the past couple of weeks, I taught both an introductory course in Business Management and Business Innovation in the Master in Business Innovation program of Bangkok University. Interestingly, teaching these two courses back-to-back, I noticed that the former describes the dominant management perspectives of the 20th century, while the latter focuses more on the new paradigms and imperatives needed to succeed in the highly dynamic business environments of the 21st century. Moreover, teaching the said two courses also gave me a chance to reflect on how the emerging new domain of creative leadership relates to —and complements— more traditional management and leadership theories.
A brief history of management thinking
Management is a comparatively young knowledge domain within the social sciences:
Interest in the domain began around 1880-1890 with the so-called “classical period” of management thinking, which included Frederick Winslow Taylor’s Scientific Management, Max Weber’s Ideal Bureaucracy, and Henri Fayol’s Administrative Principles approach.
Between the 1930s and 1950s, the Human Relations Movement highlighted the importance of also considering human needs and motivations to contribute to performance and productivity; prominent contributions here were Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and Douglas McGregor’s Theory X and Theory Y.
In the second half of the 20th century, many other theoretical management perspectives emerged that resonated with management researchers and practitioners for more extended (e.g., Systems Theory, Contingency View) or shorter (e.g., Learning Organization, Total Quality Management, and Benchmarking) periods.
From managers to leaders
“To manage is to forecast and plan, to organize, to command, to coordinate and to control”, noted Henri Fayol. For decades, these so-called managerial functions dominated the view on what managers are supposed to do. Then, in the 1970s, Henry Mintzberg contrasted this “management folklore” with the reality of what managers do in their everyday life. He created a model of ten managerial roles, one of which is the role of a leader.
In the 1980s and 1990s, the domain of leadership studies emerged based on the work of the “leadership guru” Warren Bennis and other prominent leadership thinkers such as John Adair, John Kotter, James Kouzes and Barry Posner. During that time period, the “management guru” Peter Drucker also defined the term leader in a simple yet powerful way: “The only definition of a leader is someone who has followers.”
Following his studies of 90 leaders from a wide range of professions, Bennis identified four key competencies of a leader – the ability to manage attention, meaning, trust, and self. Bennis emphasized the paramount importance for a leader to first develop an ‘integrated self’ before leadership qualities can emerge. Thereby, he also identifies certain character traits of a leader, such as being persistent, self-aware, courageous, optimistic, and willing to learn in general and to learn from mistakes in particular. As such, Bennis identified certain mindsets that describe how most leaders ARE.
How leaders differ from managers
Based on his research, John Adair described how managers and leaders differ in what they DO (action routines):
The word “to manage” goes back to the Latin word “manus” (hand), linking it to the handling a weapon, a tool, or a horse. In contrast, “to lead” is rooted in a Nordic word that denotes “road, way, or path of a ship at sea”. The etymological roots of the two words indicated that leaders give a sense of direction, while managers handle more operational tasks and tools.
Managers tend to care more for operational and administrative details. They think more in terms of systems and processes and have a strong sense of directing and controlling the work of other people. Managers tend to delegate and get things done through the efforts of others.
In contrast, leaders tend to be visionary big-picture thinkers who can envision possibilities of an exciting, more meaningful future. They have a talent for inspiring people and creating teams and often lead major efforts from the front. They use the words “we”, “our” and “us” rather than “I”, “my” and “me”. Because they often dislike “sweating the small stuff”, they are not necessarily good at administration and managing resources. Leadership also incorporates the neighboring skills such as communication, decision-making, and time management.
Last but not least, managers gain authority through an official appointment to a managerial position. On the other hand, to become a leader, you need to be ratified in the hearts and minds of those who work for you (over and above any formal authority).
To sum up: leadership sets the direction and motivates people to achieve it, while management contributes to organizational stability and efficiency. Both are needed for successful performance. However, leadership is more important in the context of rapid change and a highly dynamic business environment. Warren Bennis condensed these differences in one neat sentence: “Managers do things right. Leaders do the right thing.” And the American computer scientist Grace Hopper added the following important distinction: “You manage things. You lead people.”
How exemplary leaders lead a meaningful transformation
In their book The Leadership Challenge (originally published in 1987) James Kouzes and Barry Posner developed a model that described how to become a transformational leader. Here are the five practices of exemplary leadership that they identified in a book of the same title:
Model the way: Leaders clarify values by finding their inner compass and affirming shared ideals. They talk openly about personal and shared values. Then, they set the example by aligning actions with shared values. In other words, they do what they say they’re going to do, and thus model the way authentically and genuinely. They live by the maxim of Mahatma Gandhi: “Be the change that you wish to see in the world”.
Inspire a shared vision: Leaders envision the future by imagining exciting, meaningful possibilities while keeping an eye on the ‘big picture’ (emerging future trends and possible discontinuities). They enlist others in a shared vision by appealing to joint values and aspirations.
Challenge the process: Leaders search for and seize opportunities by questioning the old ways of doing things, by fixing bugs that need to be fixed, and by looking outward for innovative ways to improve and being open to new ideas. They pursue meaningful challenges. They courageously take the initiative and experiment to learn from experience by debriefing failures and unexpected successes. Thanks to this process, they continuously generate small wins that reinforce shared values and propel the team forward towards the desired direction.
Enable others to act: Leaders foster collaboration by building trust and facilitating good relationships. They use “we” instead of “I”. They co-create and collaborate to seize opportunities and solve problems. Leaders strengthen others by boosting their self-confidence and developing competences. They teach and coach others by being clear on their strengths and weaknesses. They share power and are open to learning from others.
Encourage the heart: Leaders create a spirit of community and make work enjoyable and productive for everyone on the team. They celebrate the values and victories by giving rewards and recognition. They catch people doing “the right thing” and praise them, thus recognize contributions by showing appreciation for individual excellence.
How creative leadership expands on traditional leadership principles
“Exemplary leaders know that if they want to gain commitment and achieve the highest standards, they must be models of the behavior they expect of others,” emphasize James Kouzes and Barry Posner. This means that to gain commitment and achieve the highest standards, creative leaders must BE CREATIVE and DO CREATIVE things themselves. Here is where creative leadership comes in: Creative leaders must genuinely possess a creative mindset and consistently practice creative action routines.
Prominent leadership thinkers such as Warren Bennis, John Adair, and Chris Argyris all insist that leaders can be developed. Based on research I’ve conducted with colleagues, we have evidence that the same holds for creative leaders. However, to develop authentically creative leaders who ARE creative and DO creative things, we need to transcend traditional leadership development programs. The authors of the IBM Global Chief Human Resource Officer Study 2011 put this sine qua non of creative leadership development 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.”
To develop authentic creative leaders for the innovation economy, and help solve the significant challenges that humanity faces, I’ve created Genius Journey, the truly creative and effective creative leadership development method of Thinkergy. Genius Journey expands on the character traits identified by Bennis and other leadership thinkers by also including those mindset factors that specifically support individual creativity and breakthrough thinking. (These creativity-specific traits reside outside the traditional leadership theory in the domains of creativity and innovation).
Genius Journey teaches creative leader candidates the creative success mindsets and action routines of geniuses and creative business leaders. We do this by sending them on the journey to reconnect to their inner creativity and personal ingenuity. In other words, with Genius Journey, we teach prospective creative leaders on how to genuinely BE creative and consistently DO creative things. Only authentic creative leaders can model the way needed to build truly creative teams and outstanding creative companies that can create these bold new solutions for a more meaningful world. Again, let’s say it in Mahatma Gandhi’s words: “Be the change that you wish to see in the world”.
Conclusion: From management over leadership to creative leadership
Humanity faces a set of massive challenges that we need to successfully resolve in the coming 2-3 decades, such as digital transformation, climate change, sustainability, labour redistribution, the debt mountain, and the singularity challenge, among others. If we want to rise to the occasion, we need to develop a phalanx of new creative leaders who approach these immense problems from a higher level of consciousness. As Albert Einstein put it: “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.”
20th-century management thinking has brought us the problems that we’re dealing with right now. I believe that 21st century-style creative leadership needs to create bold new solutions to effectively deal with the mess before it’s too late. Moreover, being an optimist, I believe that together, a sufficiently large group of authentic creative leaders and their teams can innovate us out of the mess again. Do you want to join us in this worthy effort by becoming a creative leader yourself?