The Rise of the Creative Leader

To speak of a creative leader, or manager, is for some a paradox: creativity is chaotic and unrestrained while leadership is orderly and controlling, and setting the two together makes for an uneasy, potentially volatile combination.

It was not always thus. A century ago, as businessmen entered the twentieth century seeking to differentiate themselves by building modern enterprises, the most respected outcomes of creative thinking and problem-solving took the form of order and process. The giants of the age were Henry Ford, whose automobile assembly line had revolutionized manufacturing production by changing and regimenting human behaviors, and Thomas Edison, a tireless inventor who sought constantly to make his process of experimentation and invention more systematic.

The evolution since has been fitful, swinging between the exigencies of commerce, with its demands for planning and predictability, and the realities of art, or creative production, with its requisite freedom and openness to exploration. The 1960s were particularly compelling years for this antithesis. The Romantic legacy of creativity as authentic self-expression, being true to oneself and one’s vision of the world, contrasted sharply with the rigidity of social conventions and corporate constraints. Opening a fictional window on this golden age of American advertising, the AMC television drama Mad Men has shown how that contrast led to the setting apart of creativity in its own departments, appreciated but anomalous, a necessary function of business to be tolerated and closely supervised.

Rightly admired for its historical accuracy, the series’ repeated celebration of the effectiveness of creative advertising also casts light on the apparently contradictory nature of real-life business creativity during the era. Business does not succeed in spite of creativity and free-spirited creative individuals but rather thrives because of their imaginative work. As a result, it would seem, successful leaders of creative enterprises may be less chaperones and disciplinarians than coaches and co-conspirators in their shared endeavors. Looking back at actual advertising agencies of the time, like Doyle Dane Bernbach (DDB) in the US with its pioneering teams combining art directors and copywriters, reveals the reality of such a shared sense of creative possibility.

The last two decades have seen nearly all businesses embrace innovation and creativity as central missions, at least at a high level, with leaders expected to serve as imaginative guides. Designated ‘creatives’ still do essential work in brand communications (or marketing services) industries like advertising and beyond, say, in the design areas of manufacturing firms. But more and more, creative production and excellence have become collective affairs with attention to the effectiveness of collaboration throughout businesses. For many, an equally dramatic realization has been that the most far-reaching instances of creativity involve organizational or process innovations rather than more obvious new product or service offerings. Hearkening back to Ford’s assembly line or DDB’s restructuring of traditional agency teams, these changes attest to the value and reach of leaders capable of the implementation of original thinking.

Technology-driven industries have been especially important to shaping this recent change in thinking about business creativity and many leadership icons of our time – Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos, Jack Ma – have worked there. Yet creative leadership today is not simply about technological wizardry. At Apple, Jobs’ creative genius was to envision and market new horizons for emerging technologies and existing industries alike (going back to the company’s beginning, his skills were complemented by co-founder Steve Wozniak’s technical abilities in programming). The reverberations of new media and technology firms have been profound: the emergent approach to creative leadership often combines the Silicon Valley start-up ethos, traditional creative industry openness to expressiveness and exploration, design thinking, and the sheer need of all businesses to become more innovative to remain competitive and serve customers better.

The terms, leadership and management, of course are not entirely interchangeable. There are many distinctions drawn between the two, both functional (e.g., the manager administers what is; the leader innovates what will be) and cultural (Americans like to speak of leadership, Brits and other prefer management). One of the best-known is that managers focus on systems and structures while leaders focus on people. That particular distinction made good sense in the industrial era, when both managers and leaders were crucial, respectively, to organizing work and workers efficiently and to ensuring that the firm was effective, that is, competitive in the marketplace. However, in the 1990s, legendary management consultant and educator Peter Drucker recognized that such lines were increasingly blurring and less helpful in the information economy, in which the overriding task is to “make productive the specific strengths and knowledge of every individual.” Today, we might fairly extend Drucker’s insight to our own economy in which creativity is the new normal for businesses.

Understandings of creative productions and industries themselves have likewise changed dramatically during this time. The groundbreaking classification and mapping of the creative industries by the UK Department of Culture, Media and Sport first launched in 1997 has ushered in far-reaching reassessments of the status of creative activities, work and organizations around the world. While having the result of raising the profile of creative activities, such attention has been criticized by some for reducing the value of those activities to the purely economic. Richard Florida’s influential The Rise of the Creative Class (2002) claimed with comparable reach that the presence and work of creative talent could foster openness and ultimately attract business and capital to post-industrial cities. Even as the stakes of leadership in such scenarios grow far beyond individual firms or agencies, the core relationships between individuals with creative skills and talents and those seeking to marshal and direct them and their activities appear to become less oppositional and more fluid.

If creative leadership can no longer be readily understood through the tension between order and chaos, commerce and self-expression, what should be our orientation for its future? Returning to the words “creative” and “leadership” themselves, freighted as they are with history, offers some guidance. Together, they suggest bringing novel thinking to complex leadership challenges and at the same time deploying strategic prioritizing and decision-making to creative opportunities. Rather than antitheses, the words can convey a necessary balance and even symbiosis that support a sustainably successful creative business. No creative leader could ask for more.

This piece was originally written for House Magazine and also appears as a “Berlin Brief” on the Berlin School of Creative Leadership website.