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Beyond Pop Creative Leadership

December 14, 2016




adjective: pop

  1. of or relating to commercial popular songs or music
    ‘a pop singer’; ‘pop music’ 
  2. of or relating to pop art.
  3. (especially of a technical, cultural, or academic subject) reflecting or aimed at the tastes of the general masses of people; made accessible to the general public; popularized.
    ‘pop psychology’; ’pop culture’; ‘pop novels’

During a recent visit to Silicon Valley, I was struck by the variety of distinct leadership offers promising to inspire creative performance and transform business innovation. This apparent cottage industry produced around the building of creative advantage – for individuals seeking personal fulfillment and businesses striving for success in the marketplace – obviously extends far beyond the tech sector or Northern California. ‘Creative leadership’ is also hardly new: as an outstanding 2015 article by business scholar Babis Mainemelis and colleagues documented, the idea has been deployed in various ways since the late 1950s. While many educational and consulting providers offer substantive contributions to its continuing evolution, others appear to exploit the current hype for their own profit. What follows are seven ways that creative leadership can be superficially marketed and over-simplified – as well as some more responsible approaches to this powerful way of thinking and leading.

1. What Would Google Do?

Autodesk strategist Bill O’Connor evocatively refers to the persistent, high-level celebration of successful creative organizations and leaders as ‘creative voyeurism’ and ‘innovation porn’. From Pixar, Apple, and Tencent to Sheryl Sandberg, Jack Ma, and Elon Musk, we tend to fixate on particular heroic successes – for example, life-changing products and distinctive innovation processes – without exploring more fully the specific conditions and situations in which they emerged (not to mention details of the many more failures occurring in these same settings). One such obvious distinction to be drawn is between digital- or tech-driven start-ups and legacy firms whose markets, resources and goals vary tremendously. The truer lessons of many of these success stories involve, in fact, the complex details of how leaders have imaginatively shaped and navigated their very different contexts.

2. And Now For Something Completely Different (and New!) …

Researchers ordinarily define ‘creativity’ as a combination of novelty, utility, and, sometimes, surprise. Yet in practice, novelty and difference are often disproportionately prized. Analyzing creative awards in advertising, for example, marketing researchers Mark Kilgour and Sheila Sasser found a prioritizing of originality over strategic concerns. Even when attention to strategy or effectiveness is on par with novelty, focus typically remains on the creativity of products or services. This despite the fact that oftentimes more far-reaching innovations guided by creative leaders occur elsewhere in the value chain or business model. As lean start-up and entrepreneurial innovation methodologies have gone mainstream in building new businesses, leaders and analysts have addressed these varied sources of advantage more consistently. In many established firms, too, an opportunity exists to gain advantage by being more open to changing business models, to accepting evidence from customers (rather than dwelling on competition), to fully engaging senior leadership, and to integrating innovation and execution.

3. Searching for a Creative (Leadership) Savior

As Harvard Dean Rakesh Khurana argued in his valuable 2002 study, Searching for a Corporate Savior, many organizations engage in an ‘irrational quest for charismatic CEOs’ from the outside. That quest is arguably even more pronounced in businesses reliant on creativity and innovation where leaders’ charisma is often crossed with a perception of individual creative gifts or ‘genius’. (The search is also relevant to how some businesses seek out educators and consultants as much for their apparent charisma and creativity as any demonstrated ability to improve business or creative performance.) More humility is needed from would-be leaders (and, again, consultants) in the face of uncertain and volatile futures, as is a greater reliance on research-substantiated approaches to greater effectiveness and empowerment, like Stanford professor Jeffrey Pfeffer discussed in last year’s Leadership B.S.

4. Follow Your Passion!

Two of the defining aspects of creative leadership, liberating the creativity of others and finding one’s own fulfillment, turn on robust and honest self-understanding. A popular path to such understanding is to follow one’s individual passion rather than others’ expectations. Yet in research on creative entrepreneurial projects, Rice University researchers Utpal M. Dholakia, Michal Herzenstein, and Scott Sonenshein found that preparation trumps passion in both the perception of professional investors and the eventual success of projects. The issue here is a misunderstanding of the psychology of motivation, particularly the motivation of performance: while passion is an appealing headline, a combination of heart, head and gut better predicts creative success. This broad-based approach also applies to finding fulfillment at work, as Georgetown professor Cal Newport has observed in writing about ‘the passion trap’ and feeling uncertainty and unhappiness when not being able to find the work you are passionate about.

5. Fight the Power!

The democratic and human qualities of creative businesses are accompanied, in many cases, by a contrarian impulse that is anti-academic or, at least, anti-expert. The preference, instead, is for appealing narratives of behavior or thought processes, like the right brain-left brain distinction, which over-simplify the messy complexities of individual decision-making, social interactions, and organizational change over time. A result is what executive coach Paul Gibbons calls ‘pop leadership’, a self-perpetuating industry that traffics in the destructive ‘misinformation and half-truths’ of pop psychology for the business world. ‘Don't let Deepak Chopra manage your change program’, he archly writes in calling for more responsible support of the serious business of developing leaders as enablers of people and stewards of enterprises. That support does not need to be stale or arcane. In fact, great insights drawn from both creative industry practitioners and researchers have long been available if undervalued – consider Creativity and Innovation Management, a journal now in its twenty-fifth year.

6. Cutting Edge Tools for New Age Challenges

‘We’ve tried everything already, give us something new’ is the prospective client’s request. In part, this is another appeal for novelty in creative leadership education or consulting, a magic bullet to allay anxiety over changing times while resolving actual challenges. Yet as Harvard lecturer Barbara Kellerman suggests in The End of Leadership, the client’s call is also an indictment of leadership industry experts for often being more preoccupied with differentiating themselves from the competition than being effective in helping clients drive business value. Her concluding proposal is for leadership to be thought of ‘as a creative act’ for which both leaders and followers partake in lifelong learning. That doesn't mean a fresh framework for digital transformation or an innovative design for project teams (or even, perhaps, another discrete, billable training session). It is about evolving mindsets rather than replacing toolsets, seeing ‘change’ as a verb (in Lapiz MD Gus Razzetti’s words), and agreeing to approach creative leadership as an ongoing collective process.

7. Unleash Creativity!

Creativity is among the greatest of human gifts. However, the romance of creativity – as a nearly magical set of capacities that allow individuals and organizations to be successful in any endeavor anywhere – has grown more and more prominent over recent decades. That romance allows for the ready selling of claims of new and improved ways to develop and implement creativity in business. Its increased prominence also elevates the importance of questioning such claims and probing the ‘why’ of creative work for self and society. In their new book, The Innovation Illusion, economist Fredrick Erixon and entrepreneur Bjorn Weigel thus challenge the wider economic and social value of much of today’s innovation. Likewise, cultural scholar Angela McRobbie’s Be Creative examines the contemporary meanings for creativity to individual professionals and the evolving workplace. Social entrepreneurship and more purpose-driven organizations are just two of the general approaches that allow us to make fuller sense of our creative work while also doing well and good.

While reinforcing a great belief in the potential, practice and power of creative leadership, the summary message here is, caveat emptor. Buyers and other observers should be wary as creativity and creative leadership continue to gain currency in the business education and consulting marketplaces. The point is neither to be elitist nor to reject effective summaries or other efforts to make complicated ideas easier to understand. Rather, it is to emphasize that leadership is complex and to oversimplify it is to do a disservice to those committed to becoming better leaders every day. Some ideas are unsuited to TED-style formats, as an executive put it to me recently, and some learning should take us out of the comfort zone of easy accessibility. For creative leaders, in particular, approaches to individual development and organizational change grounded in romantic notions of creativity and creative work can often have a strong allure. With greater diligence and reflection, such pop creative leadership can nevertheless be overcome in favor of more proven and impactful approaches that genuinely honor and extend the important individual, business and social work of leadership and creativity.