Leadership is hard. We aspire to leadership positions, and then once we get there we realize what a lonely place it can be. But this article is not about doomsday in leadership. I offer words of inspiration. Seth Godin wrote, “The secret of leadership is simple: Do what you believe in. Paint a picture of the future. Go there. People will follow.” I like Godin’s metaphor of painting because leadership requires creativity.
As humans, we are hardwired to be creative. And in the context of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, digital technology is ubiquitous: We are tethered to the cloud, and automation, AR, and VR will become a more ordinary means to an end. In this reality, it will be even more important to increase and accentuate what is uniquely human and ensure that technology amplifies life rather than overtakes it. Rational leadership is so 1980s. It’s also not realistic or sustainable in a VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous) world.
The challenge is we don’t use the word creativity very openly in the boardroom or in corporate environments because we don’t actually understand what creativity is. Yet, creativity is the engine for innovation. Creativity is a system, grounded in curiosity, and consists of ebbing and flowing between improvisation, intuition, and insight. When you integrate curiosity, improvisation, and intuition into your leadership practice on a regular basis, you develop your creativity quotient.
Here are three major characteristics of leaders with a high creativity quotient:
- They lead with questions. Contrary to popular belief, asking questions is not a sign of ignorance—it’s more an indication of the way you explore problems and challenges. In A More Beautiful Question, Warren Berger explains asking questions is a way of thinking. Berger does a great job of detailing innovative companies who are inquiry based—they start with asking “Why?” then proceed to “What if?” and end by exploring “How?” Leaders who start with questions advocate for and encourage curiosity among their teams. They start with questions and fall in love with problems instead of with solutions. I’ve learned from Ian Leslie, author of Curiosity, that curiosity is about building knowledge and is the product of an information gap. You need to know just a little bit about something in order to want to learn more. In our quest for building learning organizations, isn’t this exactly what we should be striving for?
- They improvise. Accept that plans are fiction—they have not yet happened. Leaders who embrace this premise insist their organizations design fluid structures for people to work within versus rigid rulebooks. Leaders must be adaptive, able to work without a script, and capable of thinking on their feet. Some great examples of improvisational organizations include the Ritz-Carlton hotel, the U.S. military, and the Netherlands headquarters of ING Bank, where they have adopted a matrixed, Lean organization based on tribes, squads, and chapters. Improvisation is a chaordic system (chaos and order), consisting of both rules and previously unexplored associations to create the novel and the inventive. Being a skilled improviser is essential in leadership and opens your work environment to new discovery around work processes and product innovation.
- They trust their gut. Jerry Kathman, co-founder of the branding firm LPK Partners, has said that “Enabling a safe and nurturing culture is the essence of leadership. The creative process is fragile: new ideas do not emerge fully formed.” Intuition is pattern recognition. Successful startup leaders reference “eureka moments” when they have paid attention to that “nudge” to follow their heart. They consistently refer to a moment when “Something told me to . . .” (fill in the blank—not to do the deal, or to work with one partner over another). Intuition is like a muscle or sonar; the more you practice it and listen to it, the stronger and clearer it becomes. Steve Jobs hailed intuition as being more powerful than our intellect, and Albert Einstein declared it a “sacred gift.”
Leadership requires an ebb and flow between mastery and bravery. Sometimes we need the guts to improvise and follow our intuition, and then allow the deep skill we have cultivated over the years to kick in. Decisive action must be preceded by keen observation. This helps us to play the long game.
Building our creativity quotient as leaders also roots us in humility, which translates into having a growth mindset and being open to what we can learn next. Humility is the bedrock for servant leadership and allows you to show up to your work with fresh eyes. Over time, with diligence, generosity, and courage, these three principles of the creativity quotient will help you to navigate change as a leader. They can be mastered at every turn in the road. And if you're a leader, you'll get plenty of opportunities to practice!