The rise of creative leadership

In the last few years, I've noticed an emerging and accelerating trend, a call for creative leadership of organisations. As part of this movement, not only does my company offer a creative leadership development method, I also teach a Creative Leadership course to my graduate students in management. What is creative leadership, and why does it matter?

The call for creative leadership: In 2010, IBM surveyed 1,541 CEOs in 44 countries for the Global Chief Executive Officers Study 2010. When asked to identify the most important leadership qualities to capitalise on complexity, "creativity" was the most frequently mentioned, chosen by 60% of those interviewed. In Asia-Pacific, that number was even higher with 70%.

The authors of the study said: "In an uncertain and volatile world, CEOs realise that creativity trumps other leadership characteristics. Creative leaders are comfortable with ambiguity and experiment to create new business models. They invite disruptive innovation, encourage others to drop outdated approaches and take balanced risks. They are open-minded and inventive in expanding their management and communications styles in order to engage with a new generation of employees, partners and customers."

The response to the call: In 2011, IBM conducted a follow-up study with more than 700 human resources officers from 61 countries to investigate how HR responded to the CEOs' assertion that the development of future creative leaders would have the greatest effect on their organisations' future success.

Not surprisingly, the majority of the HR officers interviewed highlighted the need for their organisations to identify, develop and empower creative leaders. One British HR director said: "We have strong managers, not leaders _ and we need strong creative leaders to achieve our strategic objectives."

However, while HR officers and their teams were well aware of this need, only one in three organisations claimed to be successful in meeting it _ an astoundingly low number given the stated importance of creative leadership development.

What is creative leadership? Clearly defining "creative leadership" is a key step for HR officers and their teams in their efforts to develop creative leadership candidates. The academic literature contains hundreds of definitions for "leadership" and "creativity", but due to the novelty of the concept there are relatively few attempts to define "creative leadership". How can you find and develop creative leaders if you don't know what they embody?

I've developed my own definition of the concept, starting from the definitions of "leadership" and "creativity".

A simple definition of leadership is "the action of leading a group of people or an organisation, or the state or position of being a leader". "Creativity" is harder to capture, but the various answers fall into three rough groupings:

- Person-based definitions centre on individuals, who are seen as creative to the extent that they demonstrate certain abilities, achievements and/or personality traits such as individuality, non-conformity to rules or the status quo, striving for originality and novelty, flexibility, persistence and passion.

- Product-oriented definitions describe the characteristics that a creative product or outcome needs to have such as novelty, appropriateness, relevance, worth or value, uniqueness and originality.

- Finally, process-oriented definitions of creativity emphasise cognitive processes that lead to solutions, ideas, conceptualisations, artistic forms, theories or products that are unique, novel and meaningful.

What do all these definitions of creativity have in common? For a person, process or product to be judged to be creative, it must be novel (fresh, new, avant-garde, unprecedented), meaningful (valuable, worthwhile, useful, relevant) and unique (original, one-of-a-kind, individual).

Putting the pieces together, we get a definition of "creative leadership" as "the action of leading a group of people or an organisation towards novel, unique and meaningful outcomes, or the state or position of being an authentically creative leader in an organisation". Notice the emphasis on "authentically"; in order to credibly lead a creative organisation, you can't fake it. You must be creative yourself; you must be able to creatively walk your creative talk.

The authors of the 2011 study of HR officers said: "To instil 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."

This is why my company's creative leadership development product is based on the mindsets and cognitive skills of geniuses and creative business leaders. To develop creative leaders, it reconnects leaders to their inner genius. Isn't now the best time to uncover your inner genius and become an authentically creative leader?

Dr Detlef Reis is the founding director of Thinkergy Limited ( and lectures in business creativity and innovation leadership at Mahidol University's College of Management ( He can be reached at

About the author

Writer: Detlef Reis
Position: founding director of Thinkergy Limited