Leading creatives – who’s holding the pen?


I have a confession to make. The possibly worst example of leadership I have ever come across was in design. A team of designers tasked with designing something, each wielding their pens in search of the solution, yet one person bent on undermining the whole effort by figuratively speaking holding the pen for all the others, subjugating them to mere automatons exercising a skill, rather than the mastery of their profession. Leadership involves a set of competences different from design – an ability to facilitate, set a direction but empower people in the pursuit of that goal and enabling personal growth, skills that I would argue many designers-turned-leaders are yet to master.

In companies or departments whose primary function is the creation of value derived from design (i.e giving form to creativity and shaping it into something new, surprising and valuable for a defined target audience, often in response to a perceived need, or problem) – the leaders have been (or still are) designers themselves. In this case a great deal of the judgement and respect of peers is based on concepts of whether they are a ‘better’ or ‘worse’ designer than you. Note here that the concepts of ‘better’ and ‘worse’ are often highly subjective and that in areas where the judgements of performance are highly subjective, politics abound. Note also that ‘better’ in a subordinate can often be a threat if your entire leadership is based on the mastery of a professional skill.

So when designers graduate to leaders, there can be a disconnect about what it means to be a leader and many still cling on to exercising their professional skills as a safety blanket, a means to stay in touch with their identity as creatives or worse still, are passively-aggressively fighting their new set of responsibilities, which are seen as less ‘fun’ or ‘exciting’ than doing design. This then manifests itself as micro-management, a failure to grow talent among one’s direct reports and a collective dumbing-down of the potential of all around.

This is not to say that some of the examples mentioned above about micro-management etc. doesn’t exist in other areas – of course they do, but I would argue that nowhere can such management behaviour create more psychological damage than in a creative area – because the act of being creative makes you vulnerable and whenever you put forth a half-baked idea, you are out on a limb and that goes for everyone. The less accepting an environment is of a creative idea, the less likely you are to come up with one again. However, if the value creation is based on other things as well as creativity, it is still possible to create value even if you are not being creative in the process. What suffers is your enjoyment of work – so rather than be passionate about it, it becomes ‘just a job’, but at least it is possible to do.

However, if your entire raison d’etre in terms of how you make a living is based on being creative 24/7 – then the right leadership is absolutely crucial. Leadership has to take into account how creativity thrives and how to create contexts where individuals can grow both collectively and individually and not only master their profession, but also actively be part of and role-model the behaviours that enable a culture where creativity can flourish. Carl Rogers captured it well, when he said “In my early professional years I was asking the question: How can I treat, or cure, or change this person? Now I would phrase the question in this way: How can I provide a relationship which this person may use for his own personal growth?” This should be the question leaders of creatives ask themselves too.

Designers love fixing problems and whenever we are in a leadership position and someone comes to us with a problem, the temptation to try to fix it can be overwhelming. While we feel helpful and competent, it often has the opposite effect on the other person. First, offering solutions creates distance between two people: one person in the know (above) and the other in trouble (below). Second, the person being helped feels inadequate, especially when he is already feeling weak. When we offer solutions, regardless of our intentions, the message often comes across as condescending and paternalistic. Moreover, years of this kind of behaviour can gradually erode the self-confidence of people, their faith in their own ability to come up with a solution, making the example I mentioned at the top – a team drawing but only one wielding the pen, a reality.

Instead, we should aim to create a safe environment of unconditional positive regard for each other, embracing and accepting of individuals as people, helping them grow stronger and better able to deal with challenges and difficulties on their own. There are times when suggesting a solution is appropriate, but first one must accept and be there for them, and only then provide advice and suggest solutions. A climate that contains as much safety, warmth and empathic understanding as we, as leaders, can find within us to give, is the ground where creativity can thrive en masse, where individuals can reach their full potential and surprise not only others, but themselves in how much they can achieve. And given that creativity is talked about as the skill for the future, the differentiator between companies, even nations – that means that all of us must become better at enabling creativity all around us. Only then, do we deserve to call ourselves leaders, enablers of full human potential rather than stiflers of creativity in people.

2 Comments Add yours

  1. I think leaders should not be skilled in the job of their subordinates. I mean they should know what’s what but should be too good at it. Because when you’re too good you want to have everything done your way. And this will get in the way of creative thinking of the people you’re supposed to lead.

  2. I’m not sure if design should really be a team task. I mean if people’s visions are different it will surely lead to conflict.

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