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Leadership as Creative Work

This beautiful article on reading and imagination by Neil Gaiman reminded me of a leadership truism.

Leadership is a creative act.

Or, as John Maeda of RISD and Becky Bermont said in the HBR, “Every budget, every meeting, every presentation, every decision is a chance for a creative act.”

I can admit now that as a young man I thought scientific management was the key to success.  In pursuit of optimal processes toward optimal results, I drove myself to learn to set and drive toward aspirational goals, that what you can measure, you can manage (data, data, data), and formal project management.   But, now, after many years of sometimes bitter experience, I see that the art of creative leadership (using scientific management as a toolset) opens a more humane, more fully engaging, and ultimately more successful path forward, both as we lead ourselves and our organizations.

At its core, leadership is about imagination. Whether you are leading a mission to Mars or deciding where to have dinner tonight,

You as a leader get to imagine, communicate and nurture that which has yet to become reality.

Leadership today is far less about command and control, and is increasingly about creative vision, communication and  improvisation across time.

As leaders, we must uncover and clarify the vision, then hold it as it unfolds across months of distractions, obstacles and meetings with perfectly rational, well-informed and well-intentioned people who threaten the vision by being “realistic.” In the face of these realities, leaders must bring endurance and long obedience.

Too often, modern leadership is a sprint toward the next milestone, the latest innovation and the fresh opportunity, but wisdom tells us the tremendous power of endurance and obedience to our highest values and goals.

“The essential thing ‘in heaven and in earth’ is, apparently (to repeat it once more), that there should be long OBEDIENCE in the same direction; there thereby results, and has always resulted in the long run, something which has made life worth living; for instance, virtue, art, music, dancing, reason, spirituality–anything whatever that is transfiguring, refined, foolish, or divine.”
–Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil (1886)

What might seem like a rather philosophical idea is also supported as good strategy in a lecture by historian Lawrence Freedman, who laid out:

Four Elements of Strategy

  • Creativity:  There’s no hard science of strategy, it’s an art
  • Power:  Actual outcomes should yield more power than beginning force levels would predict – this synergistic result requires creative improvisation
  • Interdependent decision making:  In complex adaptive systems, we must anticipate other actor’s reactions, which we do using empathy, imagination and creativity
  • Endurance:  Getting to the next stage

It seems to me that, for truly effective and differentiating leadership, creativity and endurance are the essential elements.  Unique and relevant results are what create highly leveraged power.  Unique and relevant results depend on creativity and endurance allows us to stay in the game long enough to find highly-leveraged opportunities that generate power.

Endurance also requires patience because in pursuing any goal in life, timing and chance play important roles in success. If we push forward with relentless focus and effort, we may be missing opportune moments and foreclosing chance openings for creative improvisation.

In my experience, large goals are rarely reached by linear action alone; more often they are accomplished by steady linear action punctuated with bursts of opportunistic and well-executed accelerated progress.  But, we don’t get those sweet moments of luck and insight without doing the long, slow work first.

Louis Pasteur said, “Chance favors only the prepared mind.”

Virgil wrote, “Fortune favors the bold.”

Long, courageous obedience can prepare us for those moments of boldly seizing momentary opportunities to move toward our visions.

Strategy thought leader Julia Sloan sees this relationship between obedience and boldness as a balance between order (process) and chaos (inspiration or opportunity).

“Although complexity theorists insist that chaos is essential for ideas to flourish, I suggest a responsive and flexible process must be established for chaos to emerge, one that encourages regular input, learning, and creativity throughout the organization. Creativity, we know from current research, requires a subtle balance between chaos and order. To foster this, it is necessary to support an atmosphere that encourages novel insights, unusual perspectives, contrarian opinions, and an abundance of data to surface and be recognized.”

To be an effective leader over time, our endurance must be built into our processes and calendars, it must be formed into a machine to create creative opportunities and then convert that chaos into the visions we’ve imagined.

Creativity, Chaos, Endurance, Form; the dance of these notions can add real power, effectiveness and even inspiration as we experiment with leading as a creative act.

Next steps:

  • In what ways could you better see and realize your creative leadership opportunities this week?
  • How could you be even more obedient and creative in service of your highest values and goals?
  • Do you have a process to hold your creative opportunities and projects that is clear, formal, and responsive across time?

I’ll write a lot more about process in later posts.  Until then, enjoy your creative process,

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