Creative leadership development

Creative leadership development

Development programmes themselves need to be novel, original and meaningful

CEOs of the world's leading corporations identified creativity as the essential leadership skill in a World Economic Forum study in 2015. But when IBM surveyed chief human resources officers in 2011, two out of three reported they had failed to develop more creative leaders. Why? Because of the dilemma of creative leadership development.

This dilemma is part of the nature of the beast: an effective creative leadership development method needs to be creative itself, or run counter to traditional leadership development programmes. The authors of the IBM study described this Catch-22 as follows:

"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."

The dilemma is founded in high effectiveness and high creativity being opposing forces residing on opposite poles: to be highly effective, we need to typically do certain things that are diametrically different to what we need to do to be highly creative.

What does it mean to develop creative leaders creatively? Using a product-based perspective, we define creativity at Thinkergy with a simple equation in line with Set Theory: creativity = (novel + original + meaningful) ideas.

A creative leadership development programme must therefore be novel, original and meaningful to qualify as creative. These criteria apply not only to the what and why of the course (theoretical content and underlying rationales), but also to its how (methodology and underlying pedagogy used to animate it) and -- often overlooked -- to the who (course creator and educator).

As such, creative leadership development programmes need to use a highly creative methodology and pedagogy created by a creative leader and delivered by her or another creative person. If any of these elements were not creative, the programme would not be effective.

Unsurprisingly, and as indicated by the IBM study authors, traditional leadership development programmes are not creative in nature. Why?

The leadership domain has evolved as a sub-domain of management since the 1980s, based on the empirical study of what practices make exemplary leaders effective while pursuing a vision for their organisation.

For example, James Kouzes and Barry Posner, the developers of The Leadership Challenge, identify five practices of exemplary leadership: model the way; inspire a shared vision; challenge the process; enable others to act; encourage the heart.

Typical leadership development programmes focus on teaching those identified practices that make an exemplary leader effective by using traditional pedagogical elements (such as lectures and case studies). Few features of these programmes are creative, if any.

How can we resolve the dilemma of creative leadership development?

A creative methodology needs to introduce a novel model or conceptual take on creative leadership; it needs to have some original ideas that go beyond copying what others have been doing so far; and this means it needs to be meaningful with regards to providing the content needed to transform a manager or standard business leader into a genuinely creative leader.

For example, Michael Gelb created course programmes based on books modelling the ways of creative leaders such as Leonardo da Vinci or Thomas Edison.

Robert Dilts described the Strategies of Genius through the lens of neuro-linguistic programming (NLP). The model used in Thinkergy's creative leadership programme (Genius Journey) focuses on developing creative mindsets, thereby proposing a novel hierarchy and a meaningful sequence of how these mindsets need to be acquired.

A creative pedagogy needs to include novel modes of teaching, an original delivery and learning style, and a meaningful flow of activities to allow candidates to learn, apply and internalise the programme-specific knowledge, skills and experiences.

The pedagogy of the Genius Journey programme is based on an age-old creative thinking metaphor: "Developing yourself into a creative leader is like going on a journey to rediscover your genius." We take learners on excursions to visit unusual destinations that relate to the session content and allow for related creative exercises and activities to animate the mindsets taught.

The people involved in the course programme creation and delivery need to be authentic creative leaders, too. In the 1980s, Stanford Professor Michael Ray invited creative leaders of Silicon Valley companies to visit classes and give evidence on the creative practices and attitudes taught in his course in business creativity.

In longer Genius Journey programmes, all creative leader candidates have to study the life of a personal "genius mentor" (a creative leader they admire).


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.

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