5 Lessons on being a creative leader from three TalentGrow Show podcast guests

5 lessons on being a creative leader from 3 TalentGrow Show podcast guests by Halelly Azulay

This past weekend I attended a professional development workshop centered around being a more creative facilitator, led by my friend and colleague and creativity-in-business expert, Michelle James of the Center for Creative Emergence. It was a great opportunity to gain new ideas, insights, and techniques I can use. But even more than that – it reminded me of some of the important lessons I’ve learned from my podcast guests (including Michelle) about why and how leaders should focus on bringing more creativity to their own ‘game’ as well as encourage and nurture it in their teams. Here’s a review those lessons for your reading convenience!

What is a creative leader, anyway?

According to Michelle James, “a creative leader is a leader who chooses to use more of his or her own creative potential on an on-going basis, choosing to always learn and evolve personally as well as professionally. One who is dedicated more to exploring possibilities than being right, and more to discovery than maintaining the status quo. Creative leaders facilitate meaning, creativity and contribution of those he or she serves – employee, colleague, team member, customer, participant, etc.”

Why is it important to be a creative leader and what gets in our way?

One IBM study of CEOs said that these leaders thought that – “more than rigor, management discipline, integrity or even vision -- successfully navigating an increasing complex world will require creativity.”

In episode 6, my guest Gregg Fraley of KILN described a common challenge he sees: “leaders are often paying lip service to the value of creativity… That’s the good news. The bad news is that when they actually see it and experience it, it makes them uncomfortable. Because creativity often feels like a loss of control, particularly to classically trained and classically behaving kind of top-down leadership style people.” He described how, unfortunately, many leaders often say they want more creativity but when they see it emerging they squash it.

Michelle James also sees resistance. In episode 7, she explained that “when you tell people to be creative, you’re going to bump up against all of the stories and all of the reasons [within them] that they weren’t creative. That’s true if you’re a leader and that’s true for your staff and employees. Something called natural resistance can emerge… as soon as you want something new to emerge, people might start resisting because they might not feel safe.

So what can we do to become a creative leader and encourage creativity in our teams?

According to these three podcast guests, here are five ways that you can become a creative leader:

1. Tolerate ambiguity.

According to Gregg, “the first thing is to tolerate ambiguity” and to nurture and encourage creative types. He suggests leaders develop a stand-back kind of attitude that helps them let their team members do their work and express their creativity.

2. Cultivate a creative environment for employees.

Michelle says that “the way to do that is by pushing your own creative edges, by breaking your own patterns, by consciously and intentionally saying, “How can I expand as a creative individual?” And it doesn’t mean you have to be full on, expressing your creativity all the time. You just don’t want to get to where you’re limiting or inhibiting your employee’s creativity.”

Michelle continues: “So for example, a lot of times people that want their staff to be more creative, but their staff’s creativity, because the nature of creativity is so unique and expansive and different, might look differently. And it’s messy. And it doesn’t come out all nice and neat. And it looks differently than what the leader first anticipated.”

“And so in that moment, as a creative leader, you have a choice – is what I’m going to say going to foster and enhance the creativity coming into this meeting or from this person or into our team, or is it going to inhibit it?”

Michelle shares an example: Let’s say someone throws out an idea, and immediately you ‘know’ that idea won’t work. Rather than cutting it down, suggests Michelle, draw more out of it. Ask the person questions such as “How would that look?” and “What do you mean?”

She puts it in the context of the improv theater principle of “Yes, and”, which means validating and building on the idea. Often, Michelle explains, “the first idea that comes out usually isn’t the best idea that becomes workable. Sometimes it’s five iterations out. Often times people feel inhibited to present that to their boss or their leader, because they’re afraid – because it isn’t polished. So as a leader you’re thinking, “How can I support it becoming polished,” versus, “Wow, it doesn’t look familiar to me. I know this won’t work. I know it’s a bad idea,” and immediately cutting down. Because then you’re cutting off all the potential.”

3. Become more adaptive and agile by practicing in low-stakes environments (like improv theater class).

Michelle suggests that we naturally feel more comfortable with the unknown and navigating uncertainty if we try a new idea in low-stakes environments than in very high-stakes environments where you have a lot on the line. “A creative leader is an adaptive and responsive leader, one that can meet the needs of the situation as they emerge. And that’s why I think improv theater is such a great practice.” She explains that by practicing improv, being goofy and having fun with nothing really at stake, you become more adaptable and you bring that increased adaptability back into the workplace. Then, when situations arise that are unfamiliar and uncomfortable, “you don’t just go to autopilot or habit. You actually have more options in front of you. You don’t freak out. You handle the uncertainty.”

4. Ensure safety but don’t shun discomfort – they’re not the same thing.

One important note from Michelle is the distinction between comfort and safety. “Many people get confused between comfort and safety. Discomfort is natural in the creative process for all of us. It’s the discomfort of learning something new. You’re not going to be masterful, just like the baby walking across the floor. They fall and they might get a little bruised. They’re learning something new, but they keep going and keep doing it, because it’s a natural part of the creative process. Discomfort is okay.”

Often, however, people try to avoid discomfort, but also don’t make it safe for people to unleash their creativity. “But safety is essential.” It’s possible to be uncomfortable and still be safe, but it’s not okay to allow people to feel unsafe. “Safety is often created by establishing rules of engagement that people feel safe in. [For example, you might say,] For the next 30 minutes, we’re going to go into divergent thinking, no judgment. You can say anything. You can explore anything. You can do anything. That’s one way of making it safe.”

“Another way of making it safe, for example, [is to use the] improv principle “make everyone else look good”. [You can tell your team:] I’m committed to making you all look good. I can’t promise it’ll be comfortable because you’re going to learn something new, but I can promise you it’ll be safe. That tells them that [you’re] going to be on their side. As a creative leader, if they think you’re for them, and they think you’re on their side, that will help bring out more of their creativity.”

5. Build your creativity muscle by habituating a learning practice into your daily (or weekly) routine.

In episode 7, Whole Brain Thinking expert Ann Herrmann-Nehdi, of Herrmann International, provides a great suggestion for how to build the habit of practicing and cultivating your creativity: “I believe that leaders today absolutely must carve out time in their schedules every single week, devoted to their own learning development. And I think we’ve gotten very sort of blasé, especially many leaders are kind of focused on others needing to develop. … but if you’re not feeling a little bit uncomfortable in your learning process, then I would challenge you to say, “Is that really learning?””

Ann explains that you have to stretch your thinking on an on-going basis, not once a year for a few days of isolated learning. Ideally, Ann suggests that stretching outside your comfort zone become a daily habit. (But if daily seems overwhelming, start monthly. Maybe weekly.) “Block time in your schedule to actually be doing something that is different and makes you a little bit uncomfortable. Most leaders that I know that are very successful in today’s world are doing that on a regular basis. They’re putting themselves into situations that require them to learn.”

Ann acknowledges that many people feel like they don’t have the time. She suggests you start with something small, even just 20 minutes a day, although she prefers that you aim to have an hour a day. Your brain needs enough time to wind down, to unhook from whatever you’ve got going on. She says that often it helps to do it first thing in the morning, before email and before beginning your daily tasks. That allows you to begin with a “fresh awakened brain.”

And if you’re a night person, no worries: schedule your time when it’s best for you.

Can’t do a daily habit? Then make it weekly. Who doesn’t have an hour a week? “You’re probably burning that on email,” says Ann.


So in order to be a more creative leader, and foster more creativity in your team, do the following:

1.       Tolerate ambiguity

2.       Cultivate a creative environment

3.       Become more adaptive and agile by practicing in low-stakes environments

4.       Ensure safety but don’t shun discomfort

5.       Build your creativity muscle by scheduling time for learning and practice into your routine

Your turn

I’m curious: what’s been your experience around being a creative leader? What are your thoughts about these ideas and suggestions? Chime in in the comments below and let’s start a conversation!

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