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The Seven C’s of Creative Leadership

Updated: Jan 23, 2023

You’ve built the innovation function, put a team in place, created the supporting processes and necessary governance to guide it all, and now you’re wondering, “Where are all the game-changing ideas?” For many companies, this is a common predicament after their first serious venture into innovation.

The problem?  Most companies jump into innovation by doing what they do best: creating process and business systems that provide order and control. While these are essential capabilities, we cannot forget that innovation is a creative endeavor.  Most companies simply do not spend enough time considering the cultural impact unleashed creativity will have on their analytical organization. Most company cultures favor and reward logic and analytical thinking, and in such cultures it is extremely difficult for a truly novel idea to survive the weight of scrutiny.

If we want a new product development process to churn out big successes, we need to feed the system with a bunch of bold and seemingly impossible ideas. In order for such ideas to have a shot at survival, companies must build the Creative Leadership skills of executives to: 1) better nurture organizational creativity, 2) inspire employees to solve big problems, and 3) better position leaders to effectively receive ideas and provide feedback in a way that does not diminish employee engagement.

As I continue to work with organizations on improving their innovation effectiveness, I find there are several key Creative Leadership attributes that are either present, with effective innovation leaders, or absent among the less capable.  I summarize these below as the 7 C’s of Creative Leadership.  They are:

1.  Communication: An effective Creative Leader must be a strong communicator. If you think about it, the innovation journey should begin with visionary communication that focuses employees on deliverables and inspires them to think proactively about new solutions. There are three important components of communication Creative Leaders should address:

  1. Vision: Vision allows everyone to understand what the company wants to become in the future. The best vision statements inform the innovation agenda directly. A strong Creative Leader utilizes vision to inspire followers and to create organizational belief that the hard work required to create a new future is far better than feeling comfortable in the status quo.

  2. Feedback: Creative Leaders provide candid and clear feedback. They judge ideas against objectives — are they on-strategy or not? If not, they give constructive feedback that allows for continued idea shaping.

  3. Informal Engagement: Creative Leaders “check-in” with teams and individuals working on innovation. They don’t sit back and wait for the ideas to come to them.  They interact informally and encourage conversations about ideas, trends, and interesting new technologies. In short, they get people talking.

2.  Curiosity: Curiosity has the ability to trickle down the organization — meaning, if senior leaders demonstrate inquisitiveness and ask “Why?” often enough, employees will start to dig deeper themselves in anticipation of questioning. Creative Leaders are naturally curious and willing to search for deeper understanding before making a judgement call. In addition, curiosity and “Why?” questioning are effective antidotes to the roadblocks put up by those who favor the status quo.

3.  Creativity: While Creative Leaders may enjoy the act of being creative, they understand it is not their job to come up with all the ideas. According to Warren Bennis, “There are two ways of being creative. One can sing and dance. Or one can create an environment in which singers and dancers can flourish.” The Creative Leader understands their job is to create the conditions for their innovation teams to flourish. They’ll spend much effort to create a culture of creativity by demonstrating the good habits they want to see in others. A big component of the latter is respecting the creative process which, unlike most corporate processes, isn’t so predictable.

4.  Connecting: The odds of developing novel ideas increase when creative minds are connected together. This is a core task of the Creative Leader and is critical to helping build and shape ideas. It also gets diverse groups collaborating and breaks down organizational silos. The concept of connecting is applied both internally (connecting organizational resources or skills) and externally (connecting teams to thought-leaders or experts in other industries). Many stories of the inventive lone genius are myths — most breakthrough innovations happen as a result of collaboration and borrowing existing technologies from outside industries.

5.  Culture: Creative Leaders have their finger on the pulse of their organization’s culture. They realize that innovation and new ideas can pose a threat to their culture. Cultural changes are never easy and virtually impossible to achieve as a lone individual. Influencing culture, therefore, requires a level of pragmatism and emotional intelligence to navigate successfully.

Edgar Schein describes organizational culture as being shaped by the prior behaviors and decisions of leaders. If we hold that to be true, then Creative Leaders can best influence culture by demonstrating the ideal behaviors they want to see when it comes to creativity and innovation. For example, when leaders start receiving ideas in a more considerate manner, their culture will evolve because employees will begin to abide by and pass along the new behaviors to others.  Be forewarned, discipline and consistency are key as employees will interpret any regression to old behaviors as, “See, nothing’s changed!”

6.  Change Management: All innovation involves change of some degree. Whether it’s a radical innovation that renders an existing line of business irrelevant or an incremental product innovation that alters a manufacturing process, Creative Leaders are conscious of the impact their ideas will have on the broader organization. This awareness helps to sell ideas as they can address potential resistance before skeptics convince key decision makers that “it can’t be done.” In addition, their deeper understanding allows them to offer solutions and pathways to feasibility that can allay potential concerns.

Academic literature on change management offers an abundance of interesting models to consider when addressing the change associated with innovation. For example, John Kotter’s 8-Steps for change management provides a relevant framework as many of the steps require shared creative leadership abilities such as communication, visioning and persistence.

7.  Courage: Courage may be the attribute that separates the good from the great. Creativity and innovation always involve some level of risk because novel ideas are unique and difficult to quantify in their infancy. While this perspective of creative courage is well-known, there is another aspect that is particularly important for successful Creative Leaders: they have the courage to protect ideas over themselves.

An idea has no voice. It is simply a mental concept manifested by the imagination of an individual or team. Most ideas are not born fully-formed and thus can look brilliant to some and absurd to others. Seasoned Creative Leaders seem to develop a sixth sense that helps them discern which ideas have potential so that they can incubate them long enough to determine their value. Sometimes, this means sticking their neck out and fighting for extra time, or pushing back and refusing to move up milestones.

The Creative Leader knows that if they don’t demonstrate their passion for an idea, or worse, they cave too quickly in front of senior management, they’ll lose their credibility. Yes, it takes courage to stand up for what you believe, especially when you feel like a salmon swimming against the current. But, it’s much easier to defend your position when you’re standing on solid strategic ground. So when picking your battles, defend the ideas that have a strong strategic case with direct linkage to key corporate objectives. Avoid those that feel like you’re only making an emotional plea.

In conclusion: if ideas are the raw material of innovation, Creative Leaders must protect their “supply chain” at all costs. The 7 C’s of Creative Leadership provide a framework for leaders to consider when evaluating their innovation organizations and staffs. In my experience, when ideas are not being generated effectively, it’s usually because of a company’s culture and the poor stewardship of leaders — not because of a lack of processes (although process is important).

Remember, a process doesn’t create an idea, only a curiously engaged human brain can do that. The job of a Creative Leader is to inspire with vision and model the creative behaviors they wish to see in others. This will awaken the curiosity and creativity of your employees, and with time, will create an army of self-motivated idea creators and problem solvers looking to change the world.

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