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Creative leadership and the leadership of creativity

Creative Leadership

Besides being an economic development opportunity, creative thinking can solve human challenges and problems at significant scale. This is what the world needs. This is what our country needs, writes LAUREN WOOLF

It’s hard to believe that a mere two to three decades ago, creativity was barely explored or taught explicitly in main-stream or business education, let alone in design-related fields. Instead, tasks, such as ‘explorations of colours’ or coming up with ‘different ways of communicating a brand message’, were used to help students build a creative mindset.

Times have certainly changed.

Today, creativity has transcended the boundaries of art and design of all kinds, and is ranked by the World Economic Forum as one of the top three skills of the future1, essential to innovation and success. Increasingly, it is now being taught in both design and non-design related environments to the extent that in some universities, creativity classes have become a central part of the curriculum.

This shows significant progress in how we are beginning to understand and appreciate the attributes and outcomes of creative thinking and how the process can influence, and importantly, improve all aspects of life.

While creativity as a skill has slowly but surely ascended the WEF ranking, so too has the term and concept of ‘creative leadership’ begun to take on a more prominent role in organisational thinking, research and practice. In fact, some researchers and practitioners in the leadership space have suggested this style of leadership is more important in the current social, political and economic climate than ever before2.

Why is this?

Well, if we understand creativity to be “the catalyst to innovation”3 , and we are aware of being in a time that is innovation-overwhelmed, to say the least, then it stands to reason that those leading us in these times need to be able to initiate and manage change like never, ever before.

What is creative leadership?

Creative leadership is a powerful way, or style, of thinking and leading based on the concept of working co-operatively to develop innovative and valuable ideas. Those leaders that employ a creative style tend to lead by creating and fostering an environment that promotes creativity. These conditions could be psychological, material, and/or social or any other supports that trigger, enable, and sustain creative thinking in others4.

I appreciate how Sir Ken Robinson, the revered champion of creativity and education, captured this definition: “The role of a creative leader is not to have all the ideas; it’s to create a culture where everyone can have ideas and feel they’re valued.”

Leaders with this as a core attribute of a creative mindset are in huge demand. Since 2010, the annual IBM Global CEO Study indicated that creativity is the number one most important quality for leaders to build successful businesses, outranking integrity and global thinking.

“CEO’s now realise that creativity trumps other leadership characteristics…To connect with and inspire a new generation, they lead and interact in entirely new ways.5

Attributes of creative leadership

So what are the attributes associated with being a creative leader, versus some of the other styles and models we have been more accustomed to in the past, but also still see today?

In summary John Maeda, talks about how creative leaders focus on inspiration over authority, ambiguity over clarity, being real over being right, improvisation over following the manual, learning from mistakes over avoiding them, and hoping they’re right rather than being certain that they will be.

Leading the business of creativity

So, if creative leadership is a style of leadership that is highly relevant for any organisation in the age of hyper-change, how does it show up in the leadership of creative companies themselves?

The attributes of creative leaders as articulated earlier, is naturally derived from the way in which artists, makers and creative people have always and by nature approached their craft. Individuals and companies with creativity at their heart, or at the core of their business output, understand, more than most, the importance of magic in the face of logic. The importance of having some chaos alongside order and the power of diversity of thought and experience to come up with the best ideas and solutions.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that having this insight automatically makes leading easy.

I work with a lot of leaders leading creative businesses – from artist studios to agencies, architects to advertisers – and without a doubt, the leadership of these organisations, be they micro to macro, bring with them a set of specific and unique challenges.

Creative organisations are by nature beautifully messy and complex, and require a full and extended skill-set of effective decision-making, intellectual and emotional intelligence and market-facing grit. Not only do leaders of creative concerns need to embody the attributes of creative leadership (as they too are in the business of liberating innovation and then selling it) but at the same time, they also have to ensure they don’t ignore the full complexity of leading an organisation A-Z. Not just an innovation centre or department.

I would argue that these heads of business are some of the most ingenious, accomplished and agile leaders you’ll find, irrespective of business category.

If we are all in agreement with Richard Florida, the famed urban studies theorist, that, “human creativity is the ultimate economic resource” then who leads creatives and how they are led is of paramount importance and should never be underestimated or undervalued.

Besides being an economic development opportunity, creative thinking has the opportunity to solve human challenges and problems at significant scale.

This is what the world needs. This is what our country needs.

The impetus around my work in creative industries and in the study of creative leadership has been a heartfelt desire to work with creative businesses to help them not only survive but thrive in the complexity of today and beyond.

They have to.

Because creative leaders, creative people, and creative organisations are those that will continue to create the brilliant ideas that define a positive and sustainable future for all.


[1] The World Economic Forum’s The Future of Jobs paper released in 2019 listed the top 10 skills demanded in 2020. Creativity was number 3

[2] Sternberg, R. J. (2007). A systems model of leadership: WICS. American Psychologist, 62, 34–42.

[3] Puccio GJ, Mance M, Zacho-Smith “Creative Leadership: its meaning and value for science, technology and innovation”

[4] Mumford, M. D., Scott, G. M., Gaddis, B., & Strange, J. M. (2002). Leading creative people: Orchestrating expertise and relationships. Leadership Quarterly, 13, 705–750. Via Wikipedia

[5] Capitalizing on Complexity: Insights from the IBM Global Chief Executive Officer Study 2019