Creative leadership is growing in importance. Accordance to a 2010 IBM Study, creativity was ranked as the most important attribute needed in executive leaders. The following is a compilation of quotes on creative leadership, the ability of leaders to lead with creativity and generate and implement creative ideas.
Quotes on Creative Leadership
“Creative leadership involves a unique vision or brilliant strategy, and sometimes both”
“Creative leadership involves encouraging debate knowing that the clash of viewpoints often produces creative gold”
“Creative leadership requires the ability to facilitate collaboration between the people who generate ideas and those best suited to implement them.”
“Creative leadership is the ability to discern between earth-shattering ideas and budget-destroying imposters.”
“Creative leadership involves assembling diverse but balanced teams in order to leverage strengths and compensate for weaknesses.”
“One of the tests of leadership is the ability to recognize a problem before it becomes an emergency.” ~Arnold Glasow
“A good general not only sees the way to victory; he also knows when victory is impossible.” ~Polybius
“A man who wants to lead the orchestra must turn his back on the crowd.” ~Max Lucado
“Never tell people how to do things. Tell them what to do and they will surprise you with their ingenuity.” ~General George Patton
“Great leaders are almost always great simplifiers, who can cut through argument, debate, and doubt to offer a solution everybody can understand.” General Colin Powell
“The visionary starts with a clean sheet of paper, and re-imagines the world.” ~Malcolm Gladwell
“If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader.” ~John Quincy Adams
“Visionary people face the same problems everyone else faces; but rather than get paralyzed by their problems, visionaries immediately commit themselves to finding a solution.” ~Bill Hybels
“Creative leadership involves imagining a new world, or ways to make the current one better.”
“Creative leadership involves blowing up the status quo, and out of the chaos, building a new world.”
*Quotes on creative leadership are by Travis N. Turner unless otherwise indicated.
SS Ideal X, the first container ship designed by Malcom McLean
Questions help frame the creative problem
For centuries, ship designers were endlessly looking for ways to design ships so as to reduce shipping costs. Designers focused on building larger, more efficient ships that could ship more cargo with less labor and fuel costs. The shipping industry changed gradually over hundreds of years but the basic idea was the same – larger ships with aquadynamic hulls and fuel efficient engines. However, it wasn’t until 1955 when Malcom McLean asked the right questions that the shipping industry was revolutionized. The answer was the modern container ship.
Rather than asking the age-old question of “how to design a more efficient ship”, McLean asked the more important question, “how to decrease shipping loading time?” Ship builders had been focusing on reducing the costs in transit, and ignored the largest of all costs – the lengthy loading and unloading time during which the cargo ship was largely idle.
Rather than taking several days to load large ship using expensive longshoreman labor, ships could be loaded in a matter of hours using automated cranes and other mechanical devices. McLean designed a system using large containers that were never opened in transit between shipper and consignee and that were transferable on an intermodal basis, among trucks, ships and railroad cars.
McLean worked with engineer Keith Tantlinger to develop the modern intermodal container that was designed to be efficiently be loaded onto ships and held securely on long sea voyages. On April 26, 1956, when American trucking entrepreneur McLean put 58 containers aboard a refitted tanker ship, the SS Ideal X (picture above), and sailed them from Newark to Houston.
The modern container ship is often as large as 1540 feet in length and 200 feet wide – limited only by the depth of the Straits of Malacca, one of the busiest shipping lanes. Containerization has increased the efficiency of moving traditional break-bulk cargoes significantly, reducing shipping time by 84% and costs by 35%.
For a book review, I reviewed Creative Thinkering by Michael Michalko, who also authored Cracking Creativity: The Secrets of Creative Genius, and Thinkertoys: A Handbook of Creative-Thinking Techniques. Creative Thinkering is divided into two parts: Creative Thinking and Creative Thinker. The first part covers the brain’s tendency to self-organize diverse perceptions into recognizable patterns, creating new ideas by blending concepts; looking at problems from different perspectives; and prompting ideas using different stimuli. The second part covers aspects of creativity that are personal to individuals, including the power of intention; the linkage between speech, belief, and actions; and the importance of taking chances.
Summary of Content
The book starts with a proposition common to most creativity books, that as children we were all creative and that this creativity diminishes over time. The primary source of this decrease in creativity over time is formal education, overly focused on answers deemed “correct” by history, analytical ability, or arbitrary authority figures at the expense of generating and exploring alternatives:
We were not taught how to think; we were taught to reproduce what past thinkers thought. When confronted with a problem, we were taught to analytically selected the most promising approach based on history, excluding all other approaches, and then to work logically in a carefully defined direction towards a solution. (p. 3-4).
The problem with education is that it wires into our brains “thinking patterns [that] limit our imagination and inventiveness.” (p. 4). Michalko explains the brain’s tendency to organize information and perceptions into these thinking patterns:
When information enters the mind, it self-organizes into patterns and ruts much like the hot water on butter. New information automatically flows into the preformed grooves. After a while, the channels become so deep it takes only a bit of information to activate an entire channel. This is the pattern recognition and pattern completion process of the brain. Even if much of the information is out of the channel, the pattern will be activated. The mind automatically corrects and completes the information to select and activate a pattern. (p. 12).
To become more creative, one must find ways to break out of existing mental patterns and structures by adopting certain practices and attributes that facilitate creative thinking. Thus, “[o]ne of the hallmarks of a creative thinker is the ability to tolerate ambiguity, dissonance, inconsistency, and things out of place.” (p. 5). Throughout the book, Michalko describes different practices, techniques, and attributes that if adopted, will help people break out of thinking ruts and create novel ideas.
The main idea of the book involves what Michalko describes as “conceptual blending.” According to Michalko, “[c]reative thinkers form more novel combinations because they routinely conceptually blend objects, concepts, and ideas form two different contexts or categories that logical thinkers conventionally consider separate.” (p. 19). Michalko further states that “[i]t is the conceptual blending of dissimilar concepts that leads to original ideas and insights.” (p. 19). Michalko explains how this process works:
[W]hen two dissimilar subjects are conceptually blended together in the imagination, new complex patterns are formed that create new ideas. The two subjects cross-catalyze each other like two chemicals that both must be present in order for a new concept, product, or idea to form. This strongly resembles the creative process of genetic recombination in nature. Chromosomes exchange genes to create emergent new beings. … The new ideas are not only greater than the sum of their parts, but they are different from the sums of their parts. (p. 20).
This conceptual blending idea is one of the dominate themes of the book with much of the book showcasing specific and different ways to employ this practices. For instance, Michalko describes a process for generating ideas commonly referred to as “forced connections”, stating that you “will find inspiration for marvelous ideas if you look for random subjects to conceptually blend with your challenge.” (p. 55). Michalko describes a number of effective ways to generate forced connections – collecting interesting objects, pictures, or articles for use as an “idea drawer”, going into nature or for a walk and talking notes of anything that sticks out or is particularly interesting, or using your imagination to generate your own forced connections. Another interesting insight was to work on multiple ideas in parallel or simultaneously, allowing ideas regarding one problem to cross-pollinate and impact the other problems.
Michalko has a number of interesting observations about perception. For instance, he states that “scientists and psychologists have proven that perception is demonstrably an active rather than a passive process; it constructs rather than records reality.” (p. 82). Some key insights include that “the perception of the observer depends on the observer’s own assumptions” and “[c]onsciously or unconsciously, we are anchored to our first impressions unless we actively change the way we look at the subject.” (p. 82, 87). Michalko then gives several ways to look at things differently – from the perspective of another or from a specific role or viewpoint; look at things from as many perspectives as possible; use metaphors to shift perspectives; pair opposite or paradoxical ideas to gain new insights.
In the second part of the book, Michalko shifts his focus from creative thinking to how creativity applies at the individual level. Michalko discusses the power of intention, stating that “[y]our brain becomes an extra-ordinary pattern recognition tool when you focus your intention.” (p. 157). When we focus our intention on something specific, “[i]ntention has a way of bringing to our awareness only those things that our brains deem important.” (p. 148). Thus, by focusing your intention on something, the brain filters out the non-important information and then brings the essential information – often the creative spark or ahah moment – the attention of your conscious mind.
The remaining chapters focus on becoming creative by the words we choose and the way we act. To be more creative, we should focus our thoughts on what we want rather than what we don’t want. Similarly, we should speak with the positive language of inclusion – describing things as they are or could be – rather than the negative language of exclusion that describes thing in reference to what they are not or cannot be. (p. 162). Michalko ascribes great power to the mind and imagination, stating that “you can synthesize experience, literally creat[ing] it in your imagination.” (p.186).
Creative Thinkering is an interesting blend of creative thinking techniques, puzzles and illustrations, thought experiments, and practical tips to improve creativity. Similar to Edward De Bono, Michalko applies a practical, anecdotal approach, rather than an academic, research-based approach. Even so, the result is a book that is entertaining, informative, and engaging and provides several actionable creativity tips. However, readers looking for a more systematic or comprehensive theory or approach to creativity will be disappointed.
Similar to Edward De Bono, Michalko’s strength is bringing creative thinking, especially creative thinking techniques and concepts to a popular, non-academic audience in digestible, entertaining fashion. Also similar to Edward De Bono, the weaknesses of his writing is that they tend to lack a unifying framework or theory. This makes placing his work within the taxonomy of other creative thinking theoretical frameworks difficult as well a veritable dearth of verifying and validity research.
The greatest contribution of this book to the field of creativity is in its description of several simple but powerful principles – conceptual blending; perception; intention; linkage between speech, thought, and actions; and the power of the imagination. Although most of these concepts are covered elsewhere in the creativity field, few books are as entertaining, practical, and immensely readable as Creative Thinkering.
Creativity means different things to different people. Just as there is a nearly infinite number of ways or means to express creativity, there is a near infinite number of ways to define “creativity.” Each definition yields additional insight in understanding creativity.
Definitions of Creativity:
An artistic expression
A new way of thinking
Looking at the world with a new set of eyes
Tuning out the status quo and listening to inner voice
A state of being or flow
Total immersion into the act at hand
Personal identification with the project
Tapping into the foundation of inspiration and distilling them into new ideas
Creativity is the process of bringing something new into being. (*1)
The systematic application of abstract, non-linear, lateral, or divergent thinking to develop new processes, ideas, products, or improve existing ones.
The tendency to generate or recognize ideas, alternatives, or possibilities that may be useful in solving problems, communicating with others, and entertaining ourselves and others. (*2)
A creative solution is a resolution to a difficult problem – a task whose resolution is non-obvious. (*3)
The ability to produce an idea that is both novel (i.g., original, unexpected), and appropriate (i.e., useful, adaptive concerning task constraints). (*4)
The phenomenon whereby a person creates something new (a product, a solution, a work of art etc.) which has some kind of value. (*5)
The act of turning new and imaginative ideas into reality. Creativity involves two processes: thinking, then producing. Innovation is the production or implementation of an idea. If you have ideas, but don’t act on them, you are imaginative but not creative. (*6)
Pulling It Together:
The right-brain definitions tend to highlight what the creative act or moment feels like –the newness or freshness of ideas or the joy of self-expression. Alternatively, these definitions highlight the seeming mystery of producing creatively – purposefully ignoring or disregarding conventional wisdom or established practices, reaching a zen-like meditative state, and tapping into inner intuition.
The left-brain definitions tend to focus on the process (generating new ideas and turning them into reality) or the end product of creativity — something new (an idea, experience, process, product, service, etc) that has value.
Interestingly, most left-brain definitions of creativity often include an element of value within the definition of creativity while the right-brain definitions usually omit the requirement of value, ostensibly leaving this judgment to the creator or the audience.
The left-brain definitions tend to prefer ideas that brought into final and tangible form, rather than the concept itself. I prefer the distinction laid out whereby creativity is defined as “thinking up new things” while defining innovation as “doing new things” (*7).
Valuing brevity, I define creativity as: “the process of creating something new.” This definition omits the requirements that the new creation have certain objective value as well the requirement that the idea must brought into tangible form in order to be a “creative act”.
(*1) Rollo May – writer, philosopher
(*2) Robert E. Franken, Human Motivation (3rd ed) at 396
(*3) Steven H. Kim, Essence of Creativity: A Guide to Tackling Difficult Problems (Oxford University Press 1990) 9.
A commonly overlooked challenge faced by creative individuals is how to decide which ideas to develop. Once the fire hydrant of creativity becomes uncapped, it is difficult to cope with the flood of new ideas and potential projects. Without careful selection of which ideas to develop, creative individuals will offer suffer from can’t-finish-a-project-itis. The challenge is that ideas for new projects keep coming faster than current ideas can be turned into final form. This problem increases exponentially as an individual gets better at generating quality ideas or where the scope of project is substantial and completion is time-consuming.
To make matters worse, usually the most new and exciting ideas come right as momentum on the current project starts to wane. A natural inclination is to put the current project on hold “temporarily”, with the sworn intention to return. But by the time you return to project, you have five new ideas, even better than the first. And so it goes.
On a personal note, I discovered that I had more ideas for projects (essays, books, board games, cell phone games, and service organizations) than I could ever complete. I also realized that I traditionally employed a very minimal decision-making process before deciding whether to start a project. If I liked an idea, I started it, usually immediately. If I really, really liked it, I made significant progress on the project running into a creative road block, often resulting in another abandoned project.
Since then, I have developed a number of criteria for deciding whether to start and commit to a project. You may find, as I have, that a large number of abandoned projects would never have been started in the first place if you had employed these and other relevant criteria before undertaking them.
How big is this project?
How much time will it take?
Can I reduce or enlarge the scope of the project if warranted by other considerations?
Can I break it into manageable pieces?
Do the pieces have to be completed in a particular order?
What is the best sequence or plan to complete the project?
Resources / Skills / Knowledge:
Do I have all the resources (materials, tools, skills, knowledge, time) I need to complete the project?
If I am missing certain resources, knowledge or skills, how easily can they be obtained?
Can I hire or partner with others to complete the parts of the project where I lack the necessary skills or knowledge?
How much will the project cost to develop and complete?
Can I share these costs with other people or projects, or find a third-party to subsidize these costs?
Should I do pre-project research before I start – such as preliminary research, outlines, drafts, or models – before deciding to undertake the project?
How extensive is the necessary research?
Should I do market research to search for competing products, services, or art?
Is there a market demand for this project?
Can I collaborate with a partner(s) or hire some on to help with this project?
What are the attributes of an ideal partner?
Can I find an acceptable partner?
Can I put together the right team of individuals to help?
Have I addressed the monetary or copyright / trademark / patent issues involved in collaborative projects?
What is my project plan?
What process will I use in creating the project?
Will I employ multiple drafts?
How will I produce the project in final form?
Is there are a particular part of the project that will cause you more difficulty?
What creative challenges or road blocks do you anticipate?
How can you overcome them?
Should you resolve the potential challenges before starting the project, or will it be necessary to work through the problems as they arise?
Completion / Quality:
Can this project actually be completed?
When will I know when it is done?
What level of quality is desired for this project?
Publication / Final Form:
Do you have the resources to have the project produced or published in final form?
What barriers may arise to producing or publishing the project in final form?
How can these challenges be overcome?
Is this the best time for this project?
Would this project make more sense in the future after additional resources, knowledge, or skills have been acquired?
Is there another project that I should start, work on, or complete first?
How does the project impact current or future projects?
Will this project give me new ideas, knowledge, skills, or abilities that are transferable to other projects?
Will this project detract or take away from other projects?
Personal Considerations & Motivation:
Why do I want to do this project?
Is this stated purpose really the true purpose for this project?
What purpose(s) if any does the project serve?
Will it help someone else or myself?
How will the project impact you or others?
Am I passionate about this particular subject matter, medium, or project?
Is this project something I love working on?
Will I enjoy the process of creation or the final product more?
How committed am I to this project?
What factors may influence my level of commitment to this or other projects?
How can I develop the commitment necessary to finish this project?
How can I know or understand my commitment level to this project?
Will this project add to or drain my energy levels?
Will I be in a better position to work on the project in the future when I am/have ___________?
Is this the right time to do this project?
Will there be a better time?
Should I wait until I am better equipped to deal with the challenges inherent in this project?
Is this the best medium for me to work in?
Is there a better medium more adapted to my interests or strengths?
Does the project leverage my strengths?
Does it require me to overcome my weaknesses, develop new strengths, or improve existing strengths?
Is this the highest and best use of my time?
What will I have to give up by working on this project?
If I only could do one more project, what would it be?
What rewards will I gain if I complete the project?
Who is my audience(s) – others, myself, critics, or commercial market?
Who are the relevant / possible evaluators of the project?
Are there multiple audiences?
Which audience is most important?
What does success look like for this project? Completion?
Appreciation by self, others, or critics?
Questions for Thought and Comment:
What decision-making process to you use in deciding which projects to work on? Has this help you create more effectively? If so, how? If not, why not?
Misconception # 1 – Creativity and artistic ability are the same
Creativity means different things to different people. Usually, when someone asks, “Are you creative”, they are actually asking, “Are you artistic?” As a result, most people will respond, perhaps inaccurately, that they are not creative. This nearly iron-clad association between “creative” and “artistic” ability is unfortunate as it creates limitations in mind of the non-artist which are not easily discarded.
The concept of creativity is often confused with the end result or expression of that creativity. While most artists are creative individuals, art is just the particular medium in which the creativity is expressed. For instance, the same artist could also write a short story, compose a song, act out a play, or perform in a musical – all different types of creative expression.
Even artists suffer limitations resulting from the blurring of the concept of “art” with “creativity” because they tend to devote most of their time to improving their skill in a particular artistic medium instead of generally developing the skill of creativity, which is the ability to generate new solutions and ideas irrespective and independent of the chosen medium.
Other non-artistic activities that require creativity can include scientific, academic, or legal research; process improvement; product or service development; marketing; or advertising. Just about any activity can be undertaken in a creative manner including raising children, teaching or educating others, managing others, leading organizations, or doing public or private service. In other words, there are essential no limits to the number of mediums and ways in which creativity can be expressed.
Misconception # 2 – Creativity is a spontaneous, non-repeatable act
Eureka! I’ve got it! Nearly everyone has experienced one or more moments of creative spark. The birth of a new idea can violently rend and reorder the status quo. After such a moment, the world may never be the same. But are such moments like lightening, never striking the same person more than once? Or can such moments be created periodically or even more frequently?
While there usually remains some mystery around those moments where pressing needs are nearly magically transformed into a novel solution, there are practices, processes, and environments that can fill that air with flammable fuel, ready to explode into an inferno with the tiniest spark. Ideas are like birds, they tend to fly together. Once you train yourself to watch for the first idea, you may find many other ideas flying close behind.
Misconception # 3 – Creativity cannot be learned, develop, or taught
We’ve all met a person that we would describe as “highly creative.” This person usually exudes new ideas and is always working on a large number of projects (sometimes they even finish them). History tends to remember the most accomplished of these creators – Leonardo DaVinci, Thomas Edison, and Michelangelo. The remaining, more eclectic creators are branded as “mad scientists” or “starving artists.”
For everyone else, there is a tendency to minimize our creative potential by assuming that creativity is an inborn trait and cannot be developed – thinking that creativity is something that one does or does not have. While it is true that some individuals are naturally more creative than others, creativity is like every other ability that can be developed over time with practice. With study and practice, your creative power can increase many times over.