Why Our Leaders Aren’t More Creative (and What to Do About It)


We are in love with the word “Eureka,” and for good reason.  Creativity is magic: the ability to create something out of nothing, to make connections that others don’t see. Everyone wants to be more creative.  Everyone wants to work for, or invest in, the world’s most creative companies.

Especially today. CEOs rank creativity as the most important leadership skill for successful organizations of the future, according to a survey last year by IBM’s Institute for Business Value.

Yet a brand new study out of the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania suggests that the people who show true creativity – those whose ideas are not only useful but also original – are rarely seen as leaders. In the study, researchers asked employees at a multinational company in India to rate their colleagues’ creativity and leadership potential.  They asked college kids to do the same thing with their classmates.  In both cases, the most creative people were not perceived as leaders.

Jennifer Mueller, assistant professor of management at Wharton and lead author of the study, speculates that out-of-the-box thinkers tend not to do the things that traditional leaders do:  set goals, maintain the status quo, exude certainty. “I walk into a meeting and someone voices a creative idea,” she told CNN, “and someone else rolls their eyes and says ‘that’s the creative over there.’ Yet if you were to say, ‘Do you want a creative leader?’ They would say, ‘Of course!’.” (Hat tip to Ben Falchuk for alerting me to the CNN article.)

I suspect that another reason for the creativity gap in the leadership ranks is that many creative thinkers are introverts.  Studies suggest that true creativity requires solitude – and that the majority of spectacularly creative people are introverts, or at least comfortable with spending large chunks of time alone. (I go into a lot of depth on this in my forthcoming book.)

And people who like to spend time alone are decidedly at odds with today’s team-based organizational culture. Introverts are much less likely than extroverts to be groomed for leadership positions, according to management research.

If we’re really serious about a future of “innovation” – if this isn’t just a feel-good buzzword – then we need to come up with – ahem – creative solutions to this mismatch.  One idea is to think hard about what leaders really do. Today’s leaders need to have a dizzying variety of skills. They need to perform the traditional tasks, like making speeches, rallying troops, and setting goals. But in today’s world, they also need to feel in their bones what innovation means.

If the same person can’t do all these things at once – and let’s face it: how many people are both social and solitary, goal-oriented and wildly original? —  we should be thinking more about leadership-sharing, where two people divide leadership tasks according to their natural strengths and talents.

If you know of any examples of this model, I’d love to hear about them!

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  2. Luna on 08.02.2011 at 08:42 (Reply)

    This post is very dear to my heart. After seeing how creative people are treated in the corporate world I can attest to the fact the creativity is actively discouraged in that world. People see it as a threat, you are seen as a squeaky wheel, someone who will not ‘follow the rules’ and are forced to sit through endless childish ‘team building’ exercises contrived by creatively numb individuals who want to pigeon hole everyone in the same niche or break you if you refuse. The fact is and this will come as a surprise, corporate leaders claim to want creativity but my experience is they actually want minions who will not think for themselves but will just follow orders. This may sound harsh but many individuals I have spoken to who don’t fit the corporate outline agree. Sadly as a former teacher I have observed this is how the school system is going. As parents we have to arrange endless play dates for our children to socialize them before school starts. Once it starts teachers encourage creativity as long as it falls within certain rigid guidelines. Children need to work well in groups, play with everyone well, fall into very neatly ascribed categories or you are told your child has ADD (often boys), is not well socialized, needs to do more sports, is a day dreamer etc. It is so important to teach our children and students from day one to be themselves. To learn to express themselves appropriately but honestly and in the right context. To get to know what they like to do and not to berate them because they don’t enjoy sports or working for the upteenth time in a group maybe then we will grow leaders who truly think creatively and want to be surrounded by them.

  3. Ron Amundson on 09.02.2011 at 10:09 (Reply)

    I sort of mirror Luna’s thoughts. Creativity has become a buzzword which sounds good, but few really want. Years ago at a startup, I built the vast majority of my team with creative types… the power of such is amazing. However, the management of such can turn into a nightmare pretty fast. Add in the fact that most P&L targets are counter to creativity, and no wonder most corporate types don’t want to embrace it.

    As far as examples go, many startups pre-IPO embrace such a stance. Ie, the proverbial tech genius paired up with the go-getter sales and goal guy. The thing is, once one gets beyond the first million in sales, the introverted nature of the creative individual will almost always be overshadowed by the other person.

  4. Karen on 09.02.2011 at 10:27 (Reply)

    I completely agree with you.

    I wonder how much we can contribute to the lack of arts in schools. Or, if the arts are present, they often seem to be taken much less seriously than more academic subjects. Why is studying the arts perceived as any less valuable than reading or math? Creativity and art is so important to humanity, yet if budgets are cut, the arts programs are generally the first to be trimmed or removed from school curricula.

  5. Ron Amundson on 10.02.2011 at 05:15 (Reply)

    @Karen, I sort of wonder if your question ties into Susan’s post above as concerns the Wharton’s profs commentary. Schools revolve around standardization, as slow as possible change, and certainty is demanded… Arts education is about as far as possible from those 3 factors, add in that arts often has more of a local tie, than a state one, and teach to the test crashes and burns.

    It would throw a wrench into the status quo, but if a school board AND school administration were to align themselves in shared leadership roles, I think the results would be amazing. Of course how to sell that to a highly polarized voting populous is another matter entirely.

  6. Luna on 10.02.2011 at 11:14 (Reply)

    Creativity however does not start and end with the arts. Children in school are forced to answer Math questions one way and to show their answers that one way, if they don’t they lose marks. If they can do it in their head and can’t explain it that is a huge taboo, the concept of trying to find a way to help the child express it their way has never even entered the minds’s of the powers that be. (I know we need to prepare them for the “real” world). Math has also become largely language based a huge disadvantage to boys who now typically score lower than girls in the elementary years (Canadian stats). Thinking creatively and being creative is hugely important not just in the arts but in language based activities as well as in Science and Math. Team sports are pushed on kids relentlessly and activities like cross country skiing and long distance running are almost totally ignored unless they are wrapped around some team activity because in our sports obsessed culture the only physical activities that matter are the “team” ones and schools just mimic that. Schools need a huge change in how they perceive their responsibilities to children. They need to look at them as individuals taking into consideration not everyone needs to be grown into an extrovert. They need to see them not as some collective that has to be pushed through testing well enough to reflect well on the schools.

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1. There’s a word for “people who are in their heads too much”: thinkers.

2. Our culture rightly admires risk-takers, but we need our “heed-takers” more than ever.

3. Solitude is a catalyst for innovation.

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