Where a creative leader often excels (when compared to a traditional, non-creative leader) is developing an effective, sometimes unique, often innovative strategy in achieving a desired objective. In addition, a creative leader will often have a vision that is either clearer or more expansive than traditional leaders.
A perfect example of this compares the late Steve Jobs of Apple with the leader of Sony during the same time. Sony was dominant player in the personal CD player and MP3 player market such that it could have easily have leveraged its strong position into new, more compelling consumer products. Instead, Sony pursued a traditional strategy of incremental improvements and product line extensions, maximizing current revenues but missing the opportunity to disrupt and dominant the consumer music market.
In contrast, Steve Jobs had a vision much more expansive than mere revenue generation (though he did manage to generate tractor-trailer loads of cash) – revolutionizing consumer music hardware, software, and distribution, all at the same time. His strategy was revolutionary (not incremental) and involved the integration of music hardware, software, and distribution into one seamless, consumer-friendly system. The iPod, iTunes & Apple store represent the brilliant solution that executed the brilliant strategy that Steve Jobs developed.
Strategy versus Solution
Generally speaking, “strategy” is the culmination of the first three steps – diagnostic, visionary, and strategic thinking and results in the asking of the right question. From the example above, Sony’s leader implicitly asked, “how might we extend our product line and competencies to maximum revenue and market share?” In contrast, Steve Jobs might have asked, “how might we revolutionize the music industry by integrating consumer music hardware, software, and distribution paired with elegant design?” A revolutionary strategic question gets revolutionary solutions. Consistently pursue the wrong question and your organization is toast even before it starts.
The “solution” is the culmination of next four steps of the creativity cycle – ideational, evaluative, contextual, and tactical thinking – and it is the answer that is implemented in response to the strategic question.
Generally speaking, the impact of a solution is largely determined by the importance of the strategic question. For instance, what if Edison had asked, “how might I improve gas lamps” instead of “how might create the first commercially feasible electric light source?” Edison strategy was revolutionary, and so was the result. Thus, what really separates creative leaders from most other leaders is that creative leaders ask questions that tend to be revolutionary (re-ordering and disrupting the status quo) rather than incremental (optimizing the status quo).
Traditional Leaders versus Creative Leaders
Like traditional leaders (most CEOs), creative leaders must develop and execution good solutions to implement their strategies effectively. However, creative leaders tend to pursue revolutionary strategies (that reinvent the system) rather than the incremental strategies (that improve the existing system). In contrast, there are near countless CEOs that follow traditional business wisdom (incremental changes), implementing effective solutions, but never generate an innovative or disruptive strategy in their lives. It is a sad truth that organizations that are led by traditional leaders are often (though not always) doomed to “middle of the pack” status.
Future creative leaders have developed the rare ability to generate an innovative strategy, but may need to work on their leadership and execution skills before they can develop into a creative leader. Future creative leaders can develop into creative leaders if they are mentored and gain the necessary experiences and leadership skills that enable the effective implementation of a solution. Unfortunately, however, many future creative leaders fail to blossom into creative leaders because they often lack one or more essential skills – like self-discipline, social and political skills, or judgment that blends both vision and practicality.
Finally, there are some leaders who neither develop good strategies nor execute solutions well. These individuals must either improve quickly or find a new job, preferably not as a leader.
Developing into a Creative Leader
Creative leaders will not always outperform traditional leaders from the start, though over time creative leaders tend to prevail. This is because innovative strategies are harder to implement, and thus, require a mature leader who has honed his leadership skills over many years. For example, early on, Microsoft lead by a more traditional Bill Gates (who effectively executed solutions and strategies that were hardly innovative) ruthlessly crushed the more innovative Apple and Steve Jobs. However, after Steve Jobs developed over the years (i.e, grew into a true creative leader), Apple crushed Microsoft (and virtually every other company) over the past 15 years or so.
There are two paths towards becoming a creative leader. The first path involves first mastering leadership, but then learning to develop increasing daring and innovative strategies. For instance, a strong traditional leader (like a Mitt Romney) could work with his team to ask the right questions, and work towards becoming a creative leader.
However, the sad truth is that most traditional leaders tend to remain “stuck” in their mental paradigms. Few traditional leaders develop out of more traditional, white-bread backgrounds. This is because traditional leaders have a strong propensity for working within existing structures (hence their effectiveness as a leader). If measured on the Kirton Adaptation-Innovative (KAI) scale, traditional leaders would have a strong preference for adaption (working within existing structures). In contrast, creative leaders tend to work outside the status quo (innovation).
Just because most traditional leaders don’t make the leap to become a creative leader, it does not mean that can’t. They just need some training in creative problem solving (search CPSI on google) that will help launch them into a new life a creative leader. In addition, a traditional leader might pair with a more innovative (as measured on KAI) individual to find success as a creative leader.
Most creative leaders develop out the second path – starting as a future creative leader and eventually becoming creative leaders. A common characteristic of great creative leaders is that they do not conform to conventions and thus take much longer to mature and develop than traditional leaders. Eccentricity has it down-sides and takes creative leaders a long time to jettison (or sufficiently reduce) their socially unproductive behaviors while still keeping their visions and strategies that are laced with creative gold. In addition, future creative leaders often need to develop self-discipline organizational skills before they become develop truly effective creative leadership.
Besides learning to “hold back” their non-conformity a few notches, most future creative leaders need to spend years polishing their traditional leadership skills, especially diagnostic, evaluative, contextual, and tactical thinking. These are the skills (often possessed in abundance by traditional leaders) that are necessary to get solutions implemented. Future creative leaders tend to be possess inherent or latent strengths in regards to visionary, strategic, and ideational thinking (often lacked by traditional leaders) – the skills necessary to formulate brilliant strategies.
Overtime, future creative leaders can overcome their personal and leadership weaknesses and develop into great creative leaders. As a warning, however, failure to overcome these weaknesses will lead to perpetual ineffectiveness. In the recent political campaign, case in point is Newt Gingrich. While Newt was arguably a brilliant policy maker and a man with some potential to innovate and disrupt society (hopefully in a positive way), his personal baggage – a lack of self-discipline, grandiosity, arrogance, inability to manage, and personal character flaws – led his campaign to crash and burn when faced with a more disciplined traditional leader (Mitt Romney). However, if a future creative leader will persist in developing, gaining experience, and polishing his strengths and overcoming weaknesses, watch out!