Sunday, December 8, 2013

R-E-S-P-E-C-T: What it Means to You as a Creative Leader

We are awash in quotations about leadership.  I read them everyday and I frequently have my thoughts provoked or am inspired, but I ordinarily resist the temptation to circulate them further.  While valuable as guideposts or summaries of the experiences or approaches of leaders, researchers, and others, I’m wary as a teacher and researcher of leadership of putting too much weight on pithy statements about such a complex and varied subject.

One quotation has recently stayed with me, however, and it comes from what for many today might see as an unusual source.  Rather than from the creative industries or the worlds of entrepreneurship or successful turnarounds of the last decade or two, the words were spoken by a woman, Mary Kay Ash, who started her own cosmetic and skin care products business fifty ago years ago.  That she was a women founder and CEO itself gives pause about how seldomly we cite female leaders for their views and vision.  But the resonance and import of her words seem to me to be universal for all leaders.

According to her namesake company website, Mary Kay “constantly encouraged both the corporate staff and the independent sales force to act as if each person they met was wearing a sign around his or her neck that read ‘Make me feel important.’”

We should not read such encouragement simplistically.  Some have criticized the “Mary Kay Way” of “praising people to success” as naïve or, amidst controversies around the company’s multilevel marketing model and product values, as manipulative.  In reflecting on the late founder’s words, I cast no judgment here on these other corporate issues.

Indeed, my focus is on those specific words and I would offer a slight updating for creative leaders today: Act as if each person you work with is wearing a sign around his or her neck that reads, ‘Respect me.’  

That update situates Mary Kay’s message at the heart of how many twenty-first century leaders strive to foster greater creativity and innovation.  Building more effective collaboration and teamwork are essential to being more creative and productive.  Such collaboration, in turn, is driven by greater trust and understanding between people.  More and more, I’ve recognized how essential the dynamics of trust are to creative activities and organizations.  Yet the necessary question then to ask is, how does one engender trust?  Among the usual answers, and good ones, are emotional intelligence and authenticity in leaders’ relationships with followers.  A related facet of trust-building deserving to be highlighted is the priority of better understanding how to respect individuals – with all their passions and aspirations, needs and vulnerabilities – that I take from Mary Kay.

The immediacy of her formulation is striking.  I confess that since reflecting about Mary Kay’s words, or my version of them, I have started having rather different conversations with colleagues with whom I’ve been standoffish or had difficult interactions in the past.  Imagining that they need to be respected and doing my best to honor the specific kinds of respect they seek has changed the nature of our interactions – and made us better collaborators.  That sign I envision around their necks is a regular and helpful reminder.

With emotional intelligence or authentic leadership, the empathy or authenticity we exercise with others has to originate in ourselves and a fuller understanding of our own fundamental values and purpose.  The same is true of the respect we seek to accord others.  As another, very different woman, poet Nikki Giovanni, puts it: “Deal with yourself as an individual worthy of respect, and make everyone else deal with you the same way.”  For creative leaders, powerful words worth quoting.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Recommended Readings for Creative Leaders to Close Out 2013

In the first half of 2013, we saw several new books that were not merely provocative but pioneering in the lessons and insights they offered to creative leaders. These included Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s manifesto for women in business, Lean In, Columbia Business School Professor Rita Gunther McGrath’s call for The End of Competitive Advantage in business strategy, economist Mariana Mazzucato’s iconoclastic analysis of the necessity of The Entrepreneurial State for successful innovation, Wharton professor Jonah Berger’s best-selling account of social transmission, Contagious, and psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman’s revisionist study of talent and creativity, UngiftedIntelligence Redefined.

For the second half of this year, various new titles have appeared (or are scheduled to shortly) that can also speak directly to the work and lives of creative leaders. These range from in-depth popular accounts of successful creative firms to more scholarly approaches to entertainment, marketing, and creativity itself. All can contribute, however, to fostering more effective leadership and successful creative businesses.

1) Scott Berkun, The Year Without Pants: and the Future of Work (Jossey-Bass) Blogger Scott Berkun’s lively account of working for a year at, the world’s 15th busiest website, where he led a team of programmers and learned very practical ways to nurture a successful culture of creativity.

2) Nick Bilton, Hatching Twitter: A True Story of Money, Power, Friendship and Betrayal (Portfolio) Bilton, a New York Times reporter, tracks the growth of podcasting start-up Odeo and how it morphed into the $11.5 billion dollar Twitter, particularly following the relationships between the four mercurial founders.

3) David Burkus, The Myths of Creativity: The Truth about How Innovative Companies and People Generate Ideas (Jossey-Bass) Management Professor Burkus offers an accessible history of creativity dating from the ancient Greeks as the basis for exploring contemporary myths and, most usefully, techniques for improving business creativity in the future.

4) Niraj Dawar, Tilt: Shifting Your Strategy from Products to Customers (Harvard Business Review Press) To succeed in the world marketplace today, argues Ivey Business School Professor Dawar, firms need increasingly to look ‘downstream’ to where you interact with customers.

5) Dave Eggers, The Circle (Knopf) In this novel, the experiences of an idealistic protagonist who goes to work at the world’s most powerful internet company are the basis of a far-reaching meditation on work, privacy, democracy and knowledge in the wired era.

6) Anita Elberse, Blockbusters: Hit-making, Risk-taking and the Big Business of Entertainment (Henry Holt) Elberse, of Harvard Business School, describes how building an entertainment business around blockbuster products and stars has recently been and remains the surest way to long-term success.

7) Howard Gardner and Katie Davis, The App Generation: How Today’s Youth Navigate Identity, Intimacy and Imagination in the Digital World (Yale University Press) Gardner, the originator of the theory of multiple intelligences, and Davis discuss the increasing ‘app-dependence’ of technology users and its consequences for identity, relationships and creativity.

8) Jocelyn K. Glei and 99U, Manage Your Day-to-Day: Build Your Routine, Find Your Focus, and Sharpen Your Creative Mind (Amazon Publishing) The latest in the 99U book series, this collection offers actionable recommendations and techniques from the likes of Seth Godin, Dan Ariely and Stefan Sagmeister for developing successful creative practices in a distracted world.

9) Tom Kelley & David Kelley, Creative Confidence: Unleashing the Creative Potential Within Us All (Crown Business) The Kelley Brothers, founder and partner in the design firm, IDEO, offer an invaluable and entirely usable guide to proven practices of better creative thinking, doing and confidence-building.

10) Charlotta Mellander, Richard Florida, Bjorn T. Asheim, and Meric Gertler, The Creative Class Goes Global (Routledge) 11 years after Florida’s The Rise of the Creative Class transformed discussions of creative economies and urban planning with a focus on U.S. cities, this new work expands critical attention to the growth and development of the creative class in cities around the world.

11) Alexis Ohanian, Without their Permission: How the 21st Century Will be Made, Not Managed (Hachette) The co-founder offers a paean to the endless opportunity of the open internet that is equal parts American Dream story (his own), start-up MBA, and two-fold plea to the government to keep the perfect marketplace open and to individuals to make the world better with innovation.

12) Robert Scoble and Shel Israel, Age of Context: Mobile, Sensors, Data and the Future of Privacy (Patrick Brewster Press) Tech journalist Scoble and consultant Israel describe the new five forces: mobile, social media, data, sensors and location – and the trust required for businesses to make them work – in a book project innovatively sponsored by the likes of Autodesk, Bing, and charity:water.

13) Brad Stone, The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon (Little Brown) Journalist Stone’s detailed, revelatory (and controversial) account of the online retailer, its visionary founder, and how they seek to re-invent (again) the future of customer experience and the digital economy.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

A Frequent Flyer's Guide to Innovation

I should open by being making clear that this post is not about imaginative ways to secure upgrades or avoid baggage or other fees….  It is, rather, about a range of ideas related to innovation and creativity experienced during a busy recent stretch of flying. Travel, of course, is generally marked by the kinds of situations often embraced by leaders wanting to foster greater creative production or excellence: engagement with unfamiliar situations and people, regular opportunities to make fresh choices and connections, a willingness to explore and uncertainty and the unknown.  During several flights since last month, though, I had various experiences explicitly about innovation, creativity and even leadership that prompted further reflection.

1. Keep Climbing
A current TV commercial for Delta Airlines shown on-board flights opens with black-and-white images of historical aviators and a voiceover declaring the need to celebrate these pioneers not by ‘looking behind’ but, like them, ‘looking beyond.’  This ‘Aviation Leaders’ entry in the ‘Keep Climbing’ campaign was created by award-winning agency Weiden + Kennedy.  Its presentation of the Wright Brothers, Amelia Earhart and first astronauts to walk on the moon is moving and held up as prologue to the continuing and forward-looking innovations of Delta.   Interestingly, as the comments on iSpot make clear, the commercial has been viewed alternately as inspiring but also as offensive to some, who interpret the treatment of these heroes as disrespectful (

2. Sky Magazine
The traditional communications outlet, creative and otherwise, for airlines is the in-flight magazine.  Delta’s paper offering, Sky, like most of its competitors, is now also available online:  The September 2013 issue is conspicuously focused on creativity and brands.  The covergirl is Heidi Klum and the story of her current projects reveals an obvious focus on (personal) brand communications.  Other content extends this emphasis, for example, an article on ‘channeling American style to Asian markets’ with profiles of brands like Red Wing Shoes and Pendleton clothing.

Several of Sky’s regular features speak to the novelty and encounters with the unfamiliar that can define travel.  The ‘Wheels Up’ section offers a blurb about a cave bar in Croatia and in ‘Creative Commons’ showcases the original graphic design work of Austrian Albert Exergian and Milan’s ‘Couture Culture.’  The ‘1 City/5 Ways’ section, this month about Hong Kong, reminded me of Edward de Bono’s famous six hats approach to creative ideation by looking at the city through the eyes, respectively, of culture vultures, hipsters, people with kids, foodies, and jetsetters.

As it happens, the same issue even has an ‘In-depth Executive Education’ section on ‘The Enlightened Leader’ that uses some of the authentic leadership ideas of Bill George, author of True North, to address the need for effective leaders to identify and use their own values to guide them.  Interestingly, a box in the article featured an interview with Anita Elberse, a Harvard Business School faculty member who leads the module there on marketing creative industries.  In Sky, she discusses Lady Gaga, whose case is featured in Elberse’s forthcoming book, Blockbusters: Hit-Making, Risk-Taking and the Business of Entertainment (MacMillan;

3. Fashion’s Lessons
Besides movies, TV shows, games and the moving map tracking flight progress, TED Talks are now available as part of Delta’s in-flight entertainment.  Obviously many of these talks, both from TEDGlobal and TEDx local events, address innovative behaviors and ideas.  So it is unsurprising that among Delta’s selections are several that directly address the challenges and opportunities of creativity and creative leadership.  One example is the provocative Johanna Blakley, whose ‘Lessons from Fashion’s Free Culture’ from 2010 explores the opportunities of an open creative process and culture: 
Specifically, Blakley uses fashion as a basis for contrasting both the originality and revenues of copyright protected and non-copyright protected industries – and ultimately advocating greater creative collaboration and sharing.

4. Daily Visual Inspiration
A new entertainment offering aboard Delta are brief videos from, the website that is ‘synonymous with inspiration’ in all things creative: .  I already receive Cool Hunting Daily updates and have enjoyed and learned from the many online profiles.  Like TED talks, a selection of the videos are now available on Delta flights.  Among the half-dozen viewable on a recent transcontinental flight were 4-7 minute films of such creatives as decoupage plate designer John Derian, tintype portrait studio Photobooth, custom ski-maker Zai, and Roy Denim’s handmade jeans.  I particularly liked the story of Lisadore, the passionate maker of one-of-a-kind Comme il Faut tango shoes in Buenos Aires.  While delivering something of the promised ‘insider look at their inspiration and process,’ the segments seem more generally to present matter-of-fact summaries of the origins and processes of these artists, designers and true originals.

5. Technology Update
On September 30, Delta announced that they were equipping 11,000 pilots with Microsoft Surface 2 tablets.  The move would replace the paper-based flight kits containing navigational charts and reference materials and carried by the crew and to take a major step toward the goal of a paperless cockpit by the end of 2014.  Trumpeting both the promised increase in efficiency and the environmental benefits of the move, their partners at Microsoft spoke directly about Delta’s ‘absolute commitment to bringing the best in technology innovation into flight operations’ (  A special ‘Keep Climbing’ segment was created to showcase the upgrade.

So much to consider and be inspired by.  Yet I found myself asking what are passengers to do with all this information and inspiration while at 30,000 feet.  Or to extend that beyond the flight itself, what passengers do once they land and carry on with the rest of their everyday lives.  Put more pointedly, can the insights of the TED talks or Cool Hunting vignettes or even ‘In-depth Executive Education’ offerings be taken off the plane and somehow put into practice on the ground?  Or are they minor and occasionally edifying amusements merely meant to pass time in the stratosphere, little more than an entertaining variation on the experience of a doctor’s office waiting room?

That may be a general issue for anything one does when flying.  However, with so much attention given over to creativity and innovation today, the prevalence of on-board content related to the topics I experienced begs further questioning.  In fact, stepping back from particular flights, and tales of creative daring, we might ask how to avoid merely being along for the ride of others’ creative or innovative work.  Recall the viewers of ‘Aviation Leaders’ offended by what they took to be a lack of respect for early pioneers of flying.  Those commentators raise an essential question: What do we do with our innovation heroes?  Do they stand on their own, largely set apart from our own lives and the present by their historical achievements, or do we actively use their example as motivation for our own original attempts to break free of the past?

This is hardly an either-or question.  We can venerate creative heroes from the past or faraway while also striving to stand on their giant shoulders and climb still higher in the future.  Too often, though, the tendency to romanticize their accomplishments, to dwell in every detail of their journeys, can become an end in itself.  Our challenge accordingly becomes to internalize the inspiration they provide us and to use it to inform and drive forward our own innovative work.  Or as I asked myself at the end of a recent long flight, How do we step away from being passengers on the innovation journeys of others and become better innovators or creative leaders ourselves?

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

The Dark Side to Leading Creative Teams: Preserving Authority while Avoiding Destructiveness

The latest issue of the Creativity and Innovation Management journal features an insightful study of team leadership, ‘Authenticity and Respect: Leading Creative Teams in the Performing Arts’.  In it, Dagmar Abfalter, a researcher at the Innsbruck University School of Management, analyzes how the leadership of teams of creatives is conducted in two theatre companies in Austria and Germany.  She focuses specifically on the challenge of leading a team or company with diverse creative talents and expertise. 

Many of the conclusions are familiar.  Four traits and practices initially emerge as critical to effective creative leadership: 
  • clearly defining success and then leading the team in achieving that goal, 
  • exercising ethical and authentic behavior, 
  • extending respect for talent and process, 
  • and granting autonomy and freedom to individual creative and the team overall. 

Yet Abfalter also notes something else consistently present in the leadership of creative teams at the theaters – a fifth trait and practice she calls the ‘dark side of leadership’.  By this, she primarily means the imposition of hierarchy and the practice of authoritarianism.  Often, this dark side translates into expressions of narcissism or self-aggrandizement by leaders who can demonstrate a lack of respect for or even degrade their creative experts.  The unsurprising results of such treatment are strong negative feelings and emotions among creatives that undermine team production.

More unexpected is another finding.  Despite the negative outcomes, the vast majority of those on the creative teams did not want to change the hierarchical structures or diminish the authority of the leader that enabled the ‘dark’ behavior.  Team members didn’t propose entirely flat or circular team designs, for example, or having a leader without clearcut or meaningful authority.  Hearing this, we might reasonably conclude that hierarchy and authority can be used by leaders either positively or negatively and that a goal should be to reduce the latter in order to maximize the former.

For all of us as leaders of creative teams, though, Abfalter’s article also provokes a more valuable question: How can we develop and practice the more positive aspects of creative leadership like respect, authenticity and autonomy we aspire to without having to resort to rigid hierarchies or the destructive exercise of authority?  Part of what’s needed, of course, is vigilance about the potential dark side of every positive leadership trait or practice, for instance, of leaderly authenticity threatening to become narcissistic.  Also essential is resisting the regular temptation, even when driven by the best of intentions, to impose beliefs, standards, processes or practices on creative teams that increase dysfunction or stifle team effectiveness rather than empowering creative productivity and performance.

How do you resist the ‘dark side’ as the leader of your creative team?

Abfalter’s full article is available here.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Learning and Leading

For many leaders, the commitment to learning – both their own and that of their workers – is a given.  We all recognize the value of learning, after all, embracing different experiences and perspectives and encouraging opportunities for our teams or organizations to learn more about our work or ourselves so we can perform more effectively.  Yet in an age of ongoing change and disruption, how do we learn most effectively?  Beyond our ready willingness, what do we focus on in order to become better creative leaders?

We may cite various familiar examples to orient our own approaches to learning.  Steve Jobs, for instance, relied on a constant curiosity that provided learning and, in turn, the capacity to connect disparate elements, like applying the calligraphy he learned in college to computer fonts used first in Apple computers.  Creativity is “connecting things,” he memorably said, and to do so requires learning them in the first place.  

Likewise, as digital technologies have transformed businesses and relationships, it seems fairly straightforward that learning how to navigate them requires the regular refreshing of technical skills and social practices.  To empower us all to use these technological tools and platforms more effectively, we might highlight the dramatic re-working of various formal professional training and educational practices, from internal organizational training to external schooling.  Underpinning this re-training for others, leaders must themselves learn about how training should be designed and customized to maximize the learning of others.

Reflecting on the complexity of learning for leaders – and the necessity of their learning to learn better – yields several other helpful approaches.

  • Learning (to Fail) Quickly

No one running a business today can afford to encourage his or her workers simply to fail.  Leaders must balance the benefit of learning with the sometimes very real costs of inevitable failures.  Too often, failing fast or often is parroted as a goal of creative projects or organizations without a fuller recognition of how learning needs to be built essentially into that process.  We ritually talk about the value of “learning to fail quickly,” in other words, when describing how to nurture innovation and creativity.  More apt, perhaps, is the way creative industry consultant and coach Charles Day puts it: we should leave out the middle two words in order to emphasize the more fundamental priority of learning quickly.

  •       Adaptive Learning

Learning quickly requires sensitivity to the different kinds of failure that leaders and other creatives experience in business.  In other words, when focusing on failures, in particular, we need to adapt and learn differently from different situations.  While intuitively obvious, such a need for adaptability ultimately is about a general openness to learning regardless of specific situation.  For example, Harvard professor Amy Edmondson recently identified several different types of failure, such as those that are preventable in predictable scenarios or systems, deviations from system specs, and the unavoidable failures that arise in complex systems or scenarios.  Based on these types, leaders and organizations can better enable learning by (1) getting past blame, (2) establishing clear if varied reporting and communications systems processes, and (3) instituting consistent modes of analysis of failures, and (4) determining opportunities for experimentation.

  •      Learning Organizations

Edmondson’s approach to enabling learning across different types of failure extends an important, two-decades-old emphasis on learning across the organization as a key to creating competitive advantage.  In 1990, Peter M. Senge published The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice ofthe Learning Organization, a groundbreaking call for thoroughgoing openness to learning at every level of organizations about operational improvements and efficiency.  For Senge, whose thinking was shaped partly by a fascination at the time with “Total Quality Management” and continuous process improvement, leaders were the designers, teachers, and finally stewards of learning.  As such, they need to be in service to the learning of others as well as the organization as a whole.  This service is powerful and far-reaching: learning across organizations is not so much about problem-solving as bridging the natural creative tension that exists between vision and current reality – and supporting leaders’ efforts to build creative cultures and collaboratively realizing organizational goals.

  •       Learning to be Introspective and Self-leading

Analyzing and learning from the complexities of their organizations is essential for creative leaders but it is not enough.  Equally necessary is introspection and making self-reflection an ongoing leadership practice.  This is often particularly challenging for those already successful at analytical or creative work: such high potentials are often unprepared leaders who must develop new capacities at the speed of business.  One powerful approach to connecting reflection to action is the authentic leadership thinking of Bill George, former CEO of Medtronic and author of True North.  In this and other works, George calls upon leaders to identify their core beliefs and values, as discoverable in their own life stories, as guideposts to leading richer and more successful lives, both professional and personal. 

Continual and thoughtful learning may be a cliché in life but it needs to be a concrete and very real driver of the work of effective leaders.  In his classic, On Becoming a Leader, management guru Warren Bennis captures well how knowing the world and knowing the self serve as cornerstones to a foundation for successful leadership.  Distilling so much of others’ insights on learning for business leaders, he recommends three active, ongoing steps:
1. Look back at your childhood, adolescence and use your experiences to make things happen in the present;
2. Consciously seek the kinds of experiences that will improve and enlarge you; and
3. Take risks, knowing that failure is vital and inevitable.

Valuable advice for creative leaders to embrace as a basis for better learning – and leading.