The Rise of Creative Leaders

John Maeda - creative leader par excellence (courtesy of

We've heard the clarion call.

We need our organisations to be more innovative. We need open and collaborative cultures. We need to take risks. We need to marry art, design and technology when asking questions, providing solutions and creating possibilities.

However, who should lead us in this brave new world?

Enter the creative leader.

According to Jeffrey Zacko Smith and colleagues from Buffalo State College, creative leaders are identified by...

"...The ability to deliberately engage one’s imagination to define and guide a group towards a novel goal — a direction that is new for the group. As a consequence of bringing about this creative change, creative leaders have a profoundly positive influence on their contexts (workplace, community, school, family, etc.) and the individuals in that situation."

Before we dive deeper into creative leadership, let us first understand how organisations are evolving.

In the social age, traditional hierarchical organisations will morph into heterarchical ones. Instead of having every worker managed by another above them like a pyramid, heterarchies are peer-to-peer systems whereby decisions are made in-situ across different cross-functional teams.

Here, the CEO is no longer at the top of the "food chain". Instead, he or she is in the nexus of the "ecosystem". Catalysed by external and internal social networks, the organisation of the future will be more fluid, dynamic and fast moving.

This can be viewed simplistically as follows:

Courtesy of Brian Watkins

With the above changes, traditional leaders no longer stand. According to John Maeda, president of the Rhode Island School of Design, the heterarchical organisations of the future require creative leaders who are interactive, improvisational, risk taking, open and real. Such organisations are akin to a jazz ensemble as opposed to an orchestra:

Image courtesy of Emily Carr University of Art + Design

What can we do to up our creative leadership quotient? Maeda proposes six principles:

1. Build From Foundations

Emphasise the core skills of your colleagues. In the case of Maeda's organisation, this includes sketching, drawing and examining raw data in whatever forms. This isn't about going back to the past, but achieving rigour and competence in fundamental skills.

2. Craft The Team

Collaborate and work actively with your people to build the organisation. Be available on the ground and roll up your sleeves to "lead from the trenches". This helps leaders to inspire others while deepening his/her ability to sense ground sentiments.

3. Sense Actively

Be attuned to the feelings of others. Don't lock yourself behind ivory towers. Instead, make special efforts to foster active relationships and show genuine concern for your colleagues in an open and transparent environment.

4. Take Leaps

With reference to Patti Brennan’s "Hierarchy of Imagination" (see below), creative leaders should emulate artists by taking risks and questioning why things are done a certain way. Instead of relying on tried-and-tested solutions to problems, they should activate their imagination to look for unconventional approaches to solutions. This also means allowing some chaos and messiness to take place.

Patti Brennan's Hierarchy of Imagination (courtesy of Creative Leadership)

5. Fail Productively

The principle of "fail fast, fail safe, and fail often" isn't new. Essentially, this looks at how organisations can bounce back quickly from mistakes without disabling their core businesses. Having a resilient culture also helps organisations to stay focused to their objectives and be united come hell or high water.

6. Grow From Critique

Finally, creative leadership is about handling negative feedback. Criticism is a key strength in creative organisations as it bolsters intellectual leadership while allowing teams to learn quickly. Being able to speak candidly without fear of repercussion is certainly key in such organisations.

What are your thoughts on creative leadership? Are there any examples that you can think of?

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