“In times of great change, we need great creative leaders.”
This is especially true today when the rate of change seems straight up and disruption seems like an uncontrollable hero you need and fear at the same time.
I’m now mumble, mumble decades into my career and consider myself incredibly lucky to still be living the dream. I get to work with some of the most creative people on the planet across entertainment, publishing, gaming and the world of play to help find new ways to think and look at the questions they face that shape the creative answers they are working hard to solve for.
Those charged with creation, invention, innovation and development are all in the business of imagining and making the next few bricks of our path into the future and to do this, there isn’t a blueprint.
It’s a little to a lot different every time and those good at recognizing and creatively altering approach and result become very valuable to their organizations by keeping them fresh and relevant and that equals profitable and growing.
These people face firestorms of change-discomfort, misunderstanding, politics and impatience coming from all sides. When creating and innovating, nothing is guaranteed except change and the fact that your competition is literally breathing down your neck trying to do the same thing only better.
It’s not a job of rinse and repeat even though publicly traded companies are all about predictability and steadily tracking growth. By definition, great creative leaders must become “the outsider, inside,” constantly challenging the larger system to remain open to risk and the unexpected. Conversely, a company will not attract or retain great creative leaders unless their culture and environment embraces having the change conversations this leader will bring to the table.
It sounds pretty high pressure and it is. It is also done brilliantly by a relatively small group of creatives who are lead by an even smaller group of exceptional creative leaders. What makes these extraordinary creative leaders so good at what they do? A big part of their abilities flows from who they are and the rest comes from what they’ve learned and how they successfully apply it to the projects and the people in their care.
Here’s my list of qualities that many of these great creative leaders have in common.
They are natural born teachers – Brilliant creatives who must direct everything aren’t leaders, they are an auteur, individual creators who weave whole cloth. Great creative leaders know how to inspire and impart (idea, questions, methods of thought, new perspectives). They seem to be walking insight factories and are superb at redefining the question in order to get a better/newer answer.
They expect newness and reject fashion or artifice – Being able to do this marks the difference between those who deliver market-leading results versus trying to anticipate the market (which always means second place at best and often just too little too late).
They require and recognize excellence – Those who work for great creative leaders feel the bar is set high and that they are expected to clear it. They also feel that those leaders can see the contributions at every step of the process and that they recognize and appropriately celebrate when excellence is being achieved. One of the more destructive problems a creative leader can cause is not being in touch with who is contributing what and to what level.
They protect the creatives that work for them – Creation of any kind is a very difficult and iterative process that is easy to send into vapor lock. Too frequent reviews and comments from too many people (especially those who may not be trained in that process) is one of the most caustic environments any company can create for innovation and creation. Great leaders know how to passionately defend and protect that environment and the creatives that work for them within it. They can often be seen as too sensitive or touchy to other parts of the organization but that is a small price to pay for a creative result that can drive your company to big success.
They foster a fearless culture – There is success and then there is learning. Failure and creating ideas that don’t rise to the need are a very important part of finally reaching excellence. Great creative leaders support highly iterative processes that learn to hold onto discoveries that work and set aside egos to move beyond the parts that don’t. They don’t Punish for smart risks that don’t exceed on the first try. This has become increasingly difficult in today’s culture of speed-to-market processes but the great leaders know that “haste makes poop.” Creation is not manufacturing. It’s making something unique once. After that, depending on what’s been created, then it gets manufactured or repeated.
They don’t need to be the center of attention – Volumes have been written on the demeanor of great leaders and much of that is true with creative as well. Generally, as corporate fashions go, we’re still detoxing from 20 years of “the culture of celebrity” where corporate hiring works more like casting a movie (big stars = box office insurance). Leadership is actually not a title. It’s a gift that those who lead assign to you in belief that you can inspire, direct and manage those who work for you. These leaders often have strong personalities but the good ones also raise up those they lead.
They provide a clear overall scaffolding yet embrace individual process – The true nature of creativity is that the process is as individual as a finger print. One person may do visual research and make connection no one thought of. Another begins with stories and finds a newly relevant thread to build upon and yet another brings new meaning to additive collaboration and is brilliant in writer’s rooms or brainstorm sessions. Great leaders learn who they are leading and supply the big process and interaction arcs that allow creative individuals to uniquely function and contribute within that envelope. The alternative is deeply destructive to creativity…proscribing the same process to be followed by all creatives. I always find it shocking just how many companies do this because it’s easy and trackable and gives those who aren’t involved in the creative process a handbook.
They are the best outward facing cheerleader of the work – All the other skills and qualities listed above mean little if the person who has them can’t create advocacy and support for his people and the amazing work they are doing. There is also an aspect of the outward facing interaction that is critical to supporting the growth of any idea beyond the initial team. Inspiration of others! No small part of being a great creative leader is the ability to “translate” the vision, the work, the process and the result, into terms that the rest of the organization (or other partners) can support and interact with. More than ever, creative results aren’t standalone efforts. They grow to include many other expressions of that result created by other stakeholders both internally and externally. Many of those stakeholders will add to, expand and extend that initial vision creatively themselves.
Net/net, our industries of entertainment, brands, products and experiences, are all facing continually accelerating change. Looking first to the health of your creative wellspring is job #1 in a long chain of making something around which your company can succeed. Find, Empower or Promote the right creative leader and profoundly engage with them to shape how that process can be made more rigorously rich and results more unexpected and yes…disruptive.