Why Creative People Are Rarely Seen as Leaders


eureka Why Creative People Are Rarely Seen as Leaders
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 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. “Innovation” is everyone’s favorite buzzword.

Yet a recent study out of the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania suggests that 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 U.S. college kids to do the same 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!’”

I suspect that another reason for the creativity gap in the leadership ranks is that many creative thinkers are introverts.  Studies suggest that innovation often requires solitude – and that the majority of spectacularly creative people across a range of fields are introverts, or at least comfortable with spending large chunks of time alone.

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, even though another Wharton study led by Professor Adam Grant found that introverted leaders outperform extroverted ones when managing proactive employees — precisely because they give them the freedom to dream up and implement new ideas.

In Drive, his fascinating book on motivation, Daniel Pink tells the story of one such CEO: William McKnight, 3M’s president and chairman during the 1930s and 1940s, “a fellow who was as unassuming in his manner as he was visionary in his thinking. McKnight believed in a simple, and at the time, subversive, credo: ‘Hire good people, and leave them alone.’”

McKnight put this into practice by allowing 3M’s technical staff to spend up to 15 percent of their time on projects of their choosing. And it paid off — one scientist dreamed up Post-it notes during his “free” time. What’s more, writes Pink, “most of the inventions that the company relies on even today emerged from those periods of…experimental doodling.” (emphasis mine)

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 the mismatch between our perceptions of a leader and of a creative person.

One idea is to consciously expand our notions of what a leader looks like.

Another is to think hard about what leaders really do. Today’s leaders need to perform traditional tasks, like making speeches, rallying troops, and setting goals. But 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. One example of this model is introverted “product visionary” Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook, and the extroverted “people person” COO Sheryl Sandberg.

If you know of any other examples, or if you have other ideas on how to address the creativity gap, I’d love to hear about them.


*Longtime readers of this blog may recognize this as a revised version of an earlier post on creativity and leadership.


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  1. Christy on 20.07.2011 at 11:26 (Reply)

    This is quite fascinating. I wonder if part of the “problem” (if it’s a problem) is that creative people don’t *want* to be leaders. I know I don’t. I’d rather quietly do my thing in the background and work with someone who is willing to and knows how to use my work/ideas. So I’d just need someone who is open, not necessarily someone who’s creative himself. The idea of tandem leadership is a grand one. That’s how I’d like to do it, if I had to.

    1. Susan Cain on 20.07.2011 at 12:01 (Reply)

      That’s a great point, Christy, that many creative people don’t want to be leaders, that they’re moved by other things.

    2. Darren on 21.09.2011 at 13:49 (Reply)

      Of course you are right, there would certainly be many creative people, introverted and not alike, that had no interest in leadership roles, like yourself.
      But I think there’s also a large group of us introverted creative types who dream of being leaders. I think it comes out in the types of books and movies we watch, the types of games we play. For the matter, the types of stories we write, be they books, scripts, or games. Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, Ender’s Game, Star Gate Universe(sort of), they all have hero’s who are reluctant leaders. I think a lot of creative introverts (and likely many others) would secretly love it if chance ended up forcing them to step up and lead. The reason they hold back is likely different for each. I mean come on, who among us introverts hasn’t played asteroids and thought “Man I’m doing great, it’d be sweet if the government rang my doorbell and had me join a starship mission, after seeing my score in this game.”…. (When that basically happened in SGU it was the first I realized I wasn’t the only one who thought that way.”

  2. John M. on 20.07.2011 at 11:45 (Reply)

    The “unsuitability” of creative/deep thinking individuals for leadership positions has long been understood, and is not likely to change anytime soon. I can point you to any number of books that make this point abundantly clear: among them, The Gifted Adult by Mary-Elaine Jacobsen, The Creatively Gifted by David Willings and, the “granddaddy” of them all, Children Above 180 IQ by Leta Hollingworth, which is one of the earliest books ever written on the subject of giftedness, and the problems of peer acceptance for deep thinking individuals.

    So while such characteristics as introversion/giftedness are decidedly at odds with team based work cultures, the harder reality is that companies value and encourage stability, not innovation. Innovation is almost ALWAYS viewed as a threat to the status quo, and the status quo is what people invest all their energies in.

    Witness the slowness with which American companies react to what are clearly threats to their business models (Blockbuster, Borders, Sun Microsystems, to name a few)-all because they weren’t able to adapt to or change in response to fundamental changes in the technologies on which their businesses were based.

    Creativity and innovation tend to work their way into the culture by way of lone individuals-not teams of individuals. The function of most companies in the “innovation food chain,” more often than not, is to take new ideas or technologies (usually provided by a founding individual; e.g., Bill Gates, Thomas Edison) and implement them in the marketplace. But once that happens, only rarely can they reinvent themselves with a new idea.

    So I guess this is just an elaborate way of saying that while our culture continues to pay lip service to the mantras of creativity and innovation, and for some reason believes that American business is responsible for all this innovation, true innovation usually starts with a single individual—usually an introvert—toiling away in solitude. Creativity can never be a team function simply because teams are built on consensus, and consensus is contrary to the creative process. So while it’s all well and good to say that we need to expand our ideas of “what a leader looks like,” studies have shown over and over again that people accept certain “types” of individuals as leaders, and creative introverts rarely fall into that category.

    There was an excellent documentary that circulated a few years ago (unfortunately, the name of the film escapes me) about two guys who founded a company together—one serving as the “brains” of the outfit, and the other as the business manager. The business guy eventually forced the brainy, introverted one out of the company—even though the whole idea for the company originated with and was developed by the introvert! If that’s not proof of the incompatibility between business and creativity, I don’t know what is.

    1. Alison A. on 20.07.2011 at 19:06 (Reply)

      Thank you John M. for such a stimulating response. I really enjoyed a) reading your entry and b) the ensuing stimulation caused by your entry.
      I know that in my past job roles that have been ‘practical’ jobs my quieter manner and ability to solve problems quickly has led me to be promoted to leadership roles. When I’ve been in creative work situations these same skills have seen me be a valued team member, but not a leader.

  3. Susan Cain on 20.07.2011 at 12:13 (Reply)

    Thx much for this thoughtful comment, John. Any chance you can rummage around your brain for the name of that documentary? I would love to see it.

    1. John M. on 20.07.2011 at 14:34 (Reply)

      It just came back to me…. The name of the film was Startup.Com. I’ll be curious to hear what you think of it.

      1. Susan Cain on 20.07.2011 at 14:47 (Reply)

        Just ordered it — I’ll let you know!

  4. Brittany on 20.07.2011 at 15:51 (Reply)

    That’s interesting that the most creative people aren’t seen as the leaders in the case of that study, but I can see that being true. It might be because they’re slightly introverted like you say, and it seems like the most extroverted people are often seen as the leaders. I’d be all for an introverted leader though!

  5. Barb Markway on 20.07.2011 at 17:55 (Reply)

    Another sore spot for me is kids having to write college/scholarship essays on what great leaders they are. My son, the creative type and not at all the join Student Council type, wrote this as part of one of his essays (not exactly on leadership per se but speaks to this thread):

    “The Simpsons has been one of the most successful shows on television for
    years, not just because of its slapstick humor, but also because of its sometimes
    uncomfortable commentary on modern society. I recently saw an episode where Homer Simpson was sitting on the couch in silence for a few seconds, and then exclaims, “Quick, turn on the TV! I’m starting to think!” At first I laughed, but the more I thought about it, it wasn’t so much funny as it was depressing. Why are people genuinely afraid of their own thoughts? Perhaps people are afraid to face reality. Or perhaps, they simply haven’t thought deeply for so long that it feels wrong. Thinking is like riding a bicycle. Everyone remembers how to ride a bike, but if it’s been a while, they might be a little rusty. Our modern culture seems to encourage us not to think, but rather to be Homer Simpson and watch mindless television shows, to “LOL” at ridiculous YouTube videos, or to forward chain emails to all of our friends.

    Most people know who Albert Einstein is, and most people have heard of his
    theory of relativity. While most people (including myself) couldn’t explain what that theory is, nobody discounts its importance. But what most people don’t know is that Einstein came up with many of the ideas behind this theory while working at an extremely boring job. Einstein finished his work so quickly that he was left with nothing to do but stare at the clock and think. All of this free time allowed him to perform “thought experiments” and refine his theory. But what if Einstein had been faced with today’s modern distractions? He might have used all of the extra time to text his friends, update his Facebook status, or play Solitaire. Today’s average ten-year-old probably has more on his or her schedule than Einstein did. But it’s not their fault. I can just imagine a mother’s reaction if her son informed her that he wasn’t going to piano lessons because he was performing thought experiments in his room.”

    Thanks again for your much needed voice.

    1. Susan Cain on 20.07.2011 at 20:43 (Reply)

      I have the EXACT same sore spot, and I wrote about it in my book. It’s not just at the college application level, either. As part of my book research, I toured elementary, middle and high schools in NY, Michigan, and Georgia, and noticed that they were all focused on developing students’ leadership potential, all students, and that they were thinking not of the “thought leadership” that your son wrote about but of leadership in the conventional sense of the word.

      Speaking of which, I love your son’s essay. He sounds like such a great kid. Did the colleges seem to like it?

      1. Barb Markway on 24.07.2011 at 21:54 (Reply)

        Hi Susan, Thanks for the kind words about my son. We never got any direct feedback on his essays, although his AP English teacher loved it. He got academic scholarships but no others. He loved school until he hit middle school. Then the teasing began and it suddenly was very uncool to be smart. He hated school all the way through high school and we kept promising him college would be better. He had an “okay” year at college, but nothing fantastic. It is disappointing and sad. He is so smart but does not like the typical classroom setting. Yet he teaches himself things like HTML coding and building a website from scratch, how to play the guitar, mandolin and banjo. He learns by teaching himself…I really worry about these next few years. I heard from a psychologist friend of mine that it is becoming more common for these smart kids to “crash and burn” in college. Not to put too much pressure on you Susan :) but I’m hoping your work can start changing the zeitgeist so that there will be a place in this world for people like my son, me, and the countless other people who sometimes feel out of step with society.

    2. Common Household Mom on 23.07.2011 at 19:10 (Reply)

      That is a very impressive and creative essay.

      1. Barb Markway on 24.07.2011 at 21:45 (Reply)

        Thank you, “common household mom” (I love your name)… These were just two paragraphs from his essay…I didn’t want to overwhelm everyone with something too long! And, of course, I’m biased and think he’s a wonderful writer with unique things to say.

  6. Garrett on 21.07.2011 at 10:12 (Reply)

    Wonderful essay, Susan, that turns the conventional picture of creativity and leadership on its head.

    I think of Edwin Land, the founder of Polaroid, a dynamic leader and a polymath who was interested in everything. Supposedly instant film came about because Land’s daughter asked him why she couldn’t see the picture right away, and subsequently he went to work on the problem and eventually solved it.

    Not much is known about Land personally, he was disdainful of biographers and insisted that his scientific record speak for itself, and evidently did not leave a paper trail. People I’ve met who worked with him or for Polaroid swear by his leadership and personal qualities, how engaged he was not only in the research and development but in treating colleagues in a humane fashion. And Polaroid was ahead of its time in employee compensation and benefits and creating opportunities for women and minorities, if my understanding is correct. (I did hear one account that Land was supposed to take the wife and the kids to the movies, but got an idea and went to his lab and forgot to pick up his family stranded on the street.”) He was quoted “Teach yourself, then teach the world.” His ideal committee, a colleague once told me, was as many people as you could fit in a taxi cab, with the thinking that the group would have accomplished its task by the time the taxi arrived at its destination. More can be read in this biography:

    1. Susan Cain on 21.07.2011 at 11:11 (Reply)

      Thx for this fascinating account, Garrett. Of course I immediately clicked through and noticed that Edwin Land looked just like Cary Grant…

  7. warren on 21.07.2011 at 17:57 (Reply)

    Great post.
    Interestingly, the ad agency business figured out this “leadership sharing” thing a long time ago. If you look at many agencies, there are usually 2 to 3 founding partners — and typically they’re divided between “creatives” and “suits.” They have equal power, but the creative leader is more responsible for creative output, while the business leader brings in business. Logical, no? I think more companies, in lots of industries, should be structured that way.

  8. Daniel-Jason on 21.07.2011 at 23:18 (Reply)

    For my college essay I compared myself to a marble cake and ignored the leadership question completely.

    I got mixed results.

    And don’t worry, Ms. Cain. I laughed audibly at the Grant-Land comparison. It’s almost as if God forgot he used that face already.

    This article and its subsequent posts struck directly home with me because I am a (helpless) victim of creativity’s ability to corrupt the will to lead - “handsome in distress” as I like to call it. If I could, I would sit in a mauve room for the rest of my life and come up with abstract concepts or novel ideas while feeding off of Ramen Noodles. I’m pleased to say that I’ve been living this dream at home for two months now, while I wait for the beginning of my freshman year in college. However, during the course of my High School career [read:slavery], I cannot tell you how many times I was singled out by teachers who admittedly had my best interests in mind but were about as tact as loaded weapons. According to them I was intelligent but too withdrawn from my peers (I’m paraphrasing extensively there). Even my parents complain about my reclusiveness occasionally and pry me away from my preferred solitude.

    I remember that in Language class “group” writing analysis assignments frequently became solo pursuits for me because I despised diluting my ideas with the opinions of others. However, my deliberate seclusion yielded results and was usually admitted warmly; I was frequently encouraged by my peers and teacher to present my work in class (so I assume that they were enjoyable, although I could be egotistical/delusional/etc). One day an administrator sat in on such an activity and after my presentation she exclaimed, “Do you see this class? Daniel has everything he needs to succeed - except the ability to work with people!” I didn’t work independently of a group after that and even though I was thrown into leadership positions, rarely did I contribute.

    My administrator had a valid point. But as John M. said earlier, “consensus is contrary to the creative process.” I have often found that sharing my brain child with others and admitting too much of their input can result in a bit of a “brain dummy.” Therefore, I prefer to be a lone wolf, just as I would imagine most introverts do. There’s simply more creative freedom.

  9. Be Assertive, But Not Too Much on 04.10.2011 at 20:51

    [...] me to this study. Besides being a total mensch, Adam is the Wharton professor responsible for the recent groundbreaking research on the strengths of introverted leaders – he has shown for the first time when and why introverted leaders outperform extroverted ones.) [...]

  10. Debbie on 07.10.2011 at 11:51 (Reply)

    Being an introvert raised in an extrovert world, I was brainwashed (harsh, but true) to believe that leadership was only possible as an extrovert. I learned how to act like an extrovert, but thinking like one was impossible, so I imitated. Now that I am older, I am trying to learn how to function in the workplace (managing 5 people and LOTS of paperwork) as an introverted leader. It really goes against the image people have had of me…but I try to take the opportunity to lead being true to myself, no matter what people seem to want instead. The curious part of this, however, is now I feel a lot less job satisfaction (boredom?) because I am much too interested in creating rather than managing a rather routine, status quo sort of department. But I have finally set up the art table at home that I’ve always wanted and have had hours of fun drawing and painting away.

  11. Creative? Introverted? Then You're Probably Not Seen As A Leader | The Creative Mind on 23.07.2012 at 21:02

    [...] her post Why Creative People Are Rarely Seen as Leaders, Susan Cain says Jennifer Mueller, assistant professor of management at Wharton and lead author of [...]

  12. Marco Antonio on 24.07.2012 at 13:09 (Reply)

    Only after I saw the URL of this website I understand the mention of ‘introverts’ in relation to creativity. I don’t believe it’s an extro/introvert issue; there are creatives on both sides (and in all hues in between)

    But I do agree with the main premise: creatives are more interested in following their own thoughts than in leading others. I would say that we either don’t want to lead, or that we like the idea that others would follow us - but we are just not equipped nor prepared to do so; the required sacrifices, different priorities, etc. simply do not match those of a creative type.

    I thought I wanted to be a leader for a long time - when I realized I didn’t care as much to put my effort and energy in people management as much as coming up with interesting ideas - and welcome anyone who wants to be a part of it, rather than leading them.

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