By Kevin Meyer
When I first read Justin Brady's article on creativity in The Wall Street Journal last week I immediately thought here comes another puff piece regurgitating worn-out cliches on the catch-all called leadership. Perhaps that's still true, but sometimes what is effectively the basic Senge's leadership model is worth revisiting.
Most leaders talk about creativity (or its cousin, innovation) without
understanding what it is and how it happens. The process of real
creativity is messy, chaotic, sometimes even disgusting, and it reeks of
failure, experimentation and disorganization. Because of this, most
leaders don't actually want creativity, they just want the results of
And most "leaders" – and I use that term loosely – especially don't like the reek of failure. Notably those that manage with a long-term vision that extends to the next quarterly earnings report.
The author goes on to describe his particular take on leadership.
The creative output of any company always comes out of leadership that exhibits one very basic principle with three facets. Creative environments aren't planted, they are cultivated by leaders who:
Listen. Listening is much different from hearing. When someone is truly listening, they keep eye contact and they strain to find meaning. When you are listening, you discover insights that weren't obvious before. In addition, your demeanor noticeably changes, making the person who is talking feel valued and thus more likely to be helpful—and creative.
Empathize. This is a giant problem today, not only in companies but in politics and even relationships. Empathizing takes work. People who truly empathize not only try to put themselves in the other person's shoes, but they also make it a priority to find truth in their words. This shift of focus is dynamic, and unlocks explosive creativity.
Trust. Listening and empathizing are useless if you can't trust another individual. Some ideas or concepts won't make sense to anyone but the innovator. That's what makes them innovators, they were capable of seeing a solution or connection no one else could. Any groundbreaking innovation is always poked and prodded when it comes out. Trusting is the final step of the creative process.
Ya, whatever. Add it to the heap. Not that he's wrong – he's not. It's just that it's all been said before, over and over, and the underlying key concept is glossed over:
Effective leadership… and creativity and innovation and all that fine stuff… is a function of recognizing the value of people. To be a bit more specific, the value of the brains of people – not just the hands.
If you treat the people (and their brains, if you realize there actually is a brain attached to the pair of hands) as a cost instead of a valuable asset, you will fail – regardless of how many times "employees are our greatest asset" is mentioned on the walls conference rooms. If you ply those people with free lunches and massages, yet you don't trust them, you will fail.
But if you recognize, support, nuture, and cultivate the value in those brains then the rewards will follow.