28 Sep 2017
Creative leadership and the art of organisational flow
Feeling inspired is more powerful, for truly creative people, than any other sort of authority.
Uri Baruchin, Strategy
The demands from leadership have never been higher. The focus on performance is still there, but across many sectors, the environment is more volatile and disruptive. Vision is no longer enough; a leader should instil their team with a sense of purpose. Innovation used to belong at the start of a process, now it’s continuous. And as we shift away from patriarchal views of leadership as inherently masculine, we add emotional intelligence, empathy, intuition, and social awareness to the mix.
And now there’s creativity, without which there will be no innovation. While innovation has many models and processes, creativity, which should generate the ideas that drive its practical application, remains more enigmatic. How do you manage something so mysterious and ‘fluffy’? Is there a method to it? Is it simply down to the leader being creative, or is it about them leading the organisation’s creativity, or both?
When discussing old-school leadership against contemporary leadership practices, there are certain stereotypes that are very much alive, which is a shame because it’s not a distinct paradigm. If we simply contrast contemporary shifts in leadership with Machiavellian command and control, we’ll miss the big picture. Instead we should take a more integrative view.
Here are five principles that draw on both ancient and new leadership approaches.
Creative leaders protect freedom
In the drive for organisational innovation, there’s a lot of emphasis on creating an entrepreneurial culture — one where creative ideas percolate and rise up through the business, creating new offerings. Without creativity, you can’t have an entrepreneurial culture because creativity generates the purpose and content of that enterprise.
The trouble is that in many cases the phrase ‘entrepreneurial organisation’ simply means self-motivated staff. You know, people who do what you want them to without having to be told. It’s a little bit like the way parents praise their children for independence if the child’s behaviour pleases the parent. When children do whatever they want, and it conflicts with parental expectations, they get described in different terms.
The first step, if you want be a creative leader, is to create the space and freedom that people need to come up with ideas and run with them, even if they don’t obviously align with your current business model.
This isn’t a new concept. The idea of a leader that nurtures a team, lets it thrive and encourages taking the initiative without asking permission for every single step, goes back as far as Sun Tzu’s The Art of War. It’s built into the leadership principles of many armies, and is quite central in the leadership principles of the US marines. The more recent Functional Leadership Model states that a leader can be said to have done their job well when they have contributed to group effectiveness and cohesion.
Obviously, it’s not about the single leader coming up with an idea or knowing the answer. If all a leader does is give people limited autonomy within the existing boundaries, it’s not going to be enough for the type of breakthrough ideas required.
In a world of disruption, cohesive and effective groups become disruptors, and when they too inevitably get disrupted, they need to be able to challenge the fundamentals of their own business to adapt - this cyclical process requires creative leadership to adopt a hands-off approach in order for an organisation to thrive.
Creative leaders facilitate ‘flow’
As we introduce unprecedented levels of independence, we create a significant challenge to most management systems. An effective way to look at it would be through the Managerial Grid Model, in development since the 60s, because it captures the two competing agendas at the heart of traditional management. One is the production-focus and the other is people-focus. And along the way, we meet some familiar management styles tackling creativity.
The growing acknowledgment of creativity’s significance in every sector is forcing problematic management styles to be reviewed. The strictly production-focused dictatorial type oppresses creativity — either people will just avoid coming up with new ideas or trying them, or, more likely, you’ll see a mass exodus of creative people leaving the organisation. The people-pleaser manager will likely create a committee effect on creativity, where everybody has to be heard and nothing happens. In the meantime, the status-quo driven middle-of-the-road manager would both dilute creativity to appease political restraints and sacrifice it piece by piece to production constraints.
And so, it emerges that creative leadership has to be both people-focused and production-focused, which within traditional perspectives of leadership, seems almost impossibly ambitious. In fact, this would fit only one out of the seven types of leaders identified by the Managerial Grid Model.
But beyond giving people space, independence and the opportunity to be creative, how do you actually make sure that when using all that resource (and make no mistake, this requires investment) people make the most of it and are both creative and productive?
Luckily, there’s a famous theory about a state where people are in their most creative and productive mode and happy with their work. And that is the ‘flow’ theory, from famously unpronounceable Czech-American psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who describes flow as ‘being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.’
Now, because flow is creative, productive and joyful, it actually places people at the sweet spot as far as both axes of the managerial matrix are concerned. How do you get people to achieve flow more frequently and stay there for longer? Flow theory suggests its own useful matrix which balances the scale of the challenge with the level of skill.
Too much challenge ends in anxiety. Too much skill with not enough challenge ends, at best, with a very relaxed and likely unproductive team. If the skill level isn’t that great either you’re left with boredom and apathy.
So, the best way for the creative leader to facilitate flow is to help people build and exercise their skills while moderating the challenge levels to keep the right balance in place.
The most interesting aspect of facilitating flow is that managing skill and challenge is too complex to be the job of single leader. Which brings us to the next principle.
Creative leadership is everyone’s job
If facilitating flow is monitoring/moderating the challenge level while building the team’s skill, then it is a job that requires support from all parts of the organisation.
Moderating challenge will sometimes be about managing stakeholder expectations, but more often it will be encouraging stakeholders to go for braver solutions and pushing the team to take on bigger challenges. In professional services, it can mean convincing clients to be more ambitious in their objectives and their projects — giving client leaders a greater role. In more consumer-led organisations, it may be about the marketing team helping customers embrace new technologies or service models.
Growing skills requires training and so HR must be on board. And the procurement and finance teams need to be aware and supportive of the cost implications. These teams should not lean back, gate-keepers waiting to be convinced, but understand this is an investment crucial to the long-term sustainability of a business.
Know when to get out of the way
The initial freedom we mentioned as the first principle makes a return here. Once the entire organisation is involved, it’s too easy to rely on rigid procedures, structures and report mechanisms that may fall back into the single dimensions of production or people.
It’s a confusing situation because managers have a tendency to ‘take charge’ of a changing situation. This is often encouraged and in fact is at the heart of the situational and contingency theories of leadership. The cultural challenge here is that this principle not only conflicts with old-school ‘born to command and control’ stereotypes of trait-based leadership, it also conflicts with more flexible and newer styles of ‘hands-on’ leadership.
The good news is that this principle requires mostly self-control to execute. Just get out of the way. When people are in flow, let them be in flow and develop their ideas. Watch from afar as the magic happens. Notice opportunities and problems, but keep them to yourself for a while. Once things have developed enough and it’s time to start connecting them to reality, then you step back in. It requires sensitivity and intuition, but first it requires you to get out of the way.
Getting things back on track
Freedom to imagine is at the top of the Maslow inspired ‘Brennan’s Hierarchy of Imagination’ created by legendary designer and MIT Media Lab Professor, John Maeda, following a conversation with public health innovator Patti Brennan.
What we see in this model is that creativity lives in the space between the ‘completely unrestrained’ imagination and the more pragmatic ‘problem-solving’.
You will notice there’s alignment between those modes and the previously mentioned production vs. people.
Creative leaders help their teams walk the winding creative path between problem-solving and imagination. Too much imagination and nothing ever becomes a reality. Too much problem solving and you fall into the reflexive knee-jerk world of survival mode business.
Here, again, it would require re-engaging with the organisation as a whole — creating space for imagination, keeping production pressures measured, and letting the right constraints drive creativity so ideas become a reality at the end of the creative process – and creativity thrives under the right level of constraint.
The common themes of these principles are autonomy and facilitation. This is an echo of the old-school tension of management vs. initiative; through a management theory prism, it would be the tension between production-focused and people-focused agendas.
In the case of creativity, it becomes less of a dichotomy and more of an intricate back and forth dialectic process between autonomy and facilitation - almost dance-like. Creative people do not want to follow blindly, but they also expect to feel inspired.
Feeling inspired is more powerful, for truly creative people, than any other sort of authority. If they don’t get inspired, if you don’t facilitate their flow, they’ll go somewhere else.
As creativity becomes more important to the success of your organisation, so is creative leadership. And it’s something the entire organisation must get behind.
Originally published in shorter form on Virgin's Entrepreneur