Learning from creative leaders

Learning from creative leaders

Pick a genius you admire, study what makes them special and apply the lessons to your own creative journey. By Detlef Reis

Twenty-first century leaders need to be creative to effectively respond to rapid changes, mounting complexity, increasing risks and daily surprises.
Twenty-first century leaders need to be creative to effectively respond to rapid changes, mounting complexity, increasing risks and daily surprises.

Creative leadership is an evolving domain at the intersection of leadership, individual creativity and innovation. For seven years, I have run creative leader development programmes based on my "Genius Journey" method that teaches participants about the mindsets of top creative leaders.

When creative leader candidates undergo a longer, intensive Genius Journey programme, I ask them to find themselves a "genius mentor". They commit to study the life, ways and achievements of their inspirational creative leader and give a presentation on that person to their peers so that they all can learn.

Today, let's take a closer look at these accomplished creative role models and why learning from them is so beneficial.

What is role modelling? Role modelling can be a powerful tool for learning about the knowledge, skills, values, and success strategies of top achievers in a given domain. The idea is to adopt and adapt those attitudes and behaviours that are beneficial, while ignoring negative traits that many of those top achievers might also display.

Twenty-first century leaders need to be creative to effectively respond to rapid changes, mounting complexity, increasing risks and daily surprises. Moreover, organisations need to develop more creative leaders to seize the opportunities of the fast-paced innovation economy. The Genius Journey can help.

The Genius Journey approach sends candidates on an experiential journey to learn how to emulate the creative mindsets and habits of geniuses and outstanding creative leaders in business, the sciences, politics, sports and the arts.

By "getting into the heads" of these role models, you learn how they tend to think about things (mindsets) and how they tend to do regular activities (routines). Equipped with these deeper insights, you may discern their success strategies and adapt them to your needs.

Moreover, studying role models allows you to realise that for most famous creators, the road to success wasn't easy. Instead, it was a rather bumpy ride on the path less travelled, full of challenges, trials, twists and turns that eventually led to mastery and outstanding accomplishments.

In an ideal world, you would seek out your favourite creative leaders in person and spend time with them. This is rarely possible, and of course some of these people have already passed on.

But you can read their biographies. And if you're lucky, your favourite genius even wrote an autobiography that gives you direct access to his or her mind. You can also seek out semi-biographical books, videos and interviews, articles, and of course their own creations, from artworks to products or even the organisations they founded or shaped.

Notable names: Creative leaders are outstanding creative personalities who have led an organisation or a particular domain and contributed novel, original and meaningful concepts that created significant value to their environment.

Let's look at some of the names that candidates of our Genius Journey programmes have adopted:

  • Universal geniuses such as Leonardo da Vinci, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe or Benjamin Franklin.
  • Creative business leaders such as Thomas Edison, Walt Disney, Steve Jobs, Richard Branson, David Ogilvy, Coco Chanel and Elon Musk.
  • Scientists like Albert Einstein, Steven Hawking, Richard Feynman, Charles Darwin and Marie Curie.
  • Artists such as Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dali, John Lennon, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Steven Spielberg.
  • Political leaders such as Abraham Lincoln, Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi and Thomas Jefferson.
  • Legendary sports icons like Muhammad Ali, Bruce Lee and Ayrton Senna.

The right role model for you: Many creative leader candidates already have a "favourite hero" in mind, but an even better way to find a fitting role model is to settle on one who has a comparable personality and cognitive style to yours.

You can find a cognitive fit by completing a personality assessment such as the Myers–Briggs Type Indicator or a cognitive profiling tool such as our TIPS test, which links famous role models to different profile types.

For example, in TIPS, Winston Churchill or Walmart founder Sam Walton are suitable role models if your profile fits that of an Organiser. Someone with a Conceptualiser profile may want to study Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg.

Does it really work? Research studies that we have conducted to test the efficacy of the Genius Journey methodology and teaching showed that four out of five candidates (very) strongly agreed the Creative Leader Studies & Portraits add both value and enjoyment. As one creative leader candidate commented:

"Asking us to talk about our creative leader was a relevant idea. It made me realise that even the most prominent and influential leaders went through darker moments before accomplishing outstanding achievements. If I take the example of Yves Saint Laurent, he managed to be one of the most influential fashion designers of the 20th century despite several faults such as the lack of self-confidence and shyness. That's why we have to keep dreaming and believe in our future."


Dr Detlef Reis is the founding director and chief ideator of Thinkergy, the "Know how to Wow" Innovation Company in Asia and beyond. He is also an assistant professor at the Institute for Knowledge & Innovation - Southeast Asia at Bangkok University, and an adjunct associate professor at the Hong Kong Baptist University. Email dr.d@thinkergy.com


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