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.