Thursday, April 24, 2014

The Rise of the Creative Leader

To speak of a creative leader, or manager, is for some a paradox: creativity is chaotic and unrestrained while leadership is orderly and controlling, and setting the two together makes for an uneasy, potentially volatile combination.

It was not always thus. A century ago, as businessmen entered the twentieth century seeking to differentiate themselves by building modern enterprises, the most respected outcomes of creative thinking and problem-solving took the form of order and process. The giants of the age were Henry Ford, whose automobile assembly line had revolutionized manufacturing production by changing and regimenting human behaviors, and Thomas Edison, a tireless inventor who sought constantly to make his process of experimentation and invention more systematic.

The evolution since has been fitful, swinging between the exigencies of commerce, with its demands for planning and predictability, and the realities of art, or creative production, with its requisite freedom and openness to exploration. The 1960s were particularly compelling years for this antithesis. The Romantic legacy of creativity as authentic self-expression, being true to oneself and one’s vision of the world, contrasted sharply with the rigidity of social conventions and corporate constraints. Opening a fictional window on this golden age of American advertising, the AMC television drama Mad Men has shown how that contrast led to the setting apart of creativity in its own departments, appreciated but anomalous, a necessary function of business to be tolerated and closely supervised.

Rightly admired for its historical accuracy, the series’ repeated celebration of the effectiveness of creative advertising also casts light on the apparently contradictory nature of real-life business creativity during the era. Business does not succeed in spite of creativity and free-spirited creative individuals but rather thrives because of their imaginative work. As a result, it would seem, successful leaders of creative enterprises may be less chaperones and disciplinarians than coaches and co-conspirators in their shared endeavors. Looking back at actual advertising agencies of the time, like Doyle Dane Bernbach (DDB) in the US with its pioneering teams combining art directors and copywriters, reveals the reality of such a shared sense of creative possibility.

The last two decades have seen nearly all businesses embrace innovation and creativity as central missions, at least at a high level, with leaders expected to serve as imaginative guides. Designated ‘creatives’ still do essential work in brand communications (or marketing services) industries like advertising and beyond, say, in the design areas of manufacturing firms. But more and more, creative production and excellence have become collective affairs with attention to the effectiveness of collaboration throughout businesses. For many, an equally dramatic realization has been that the most far-reaching instances of creativity involve organizational or process innovations rather than more obvious new product or service offerings. Hearkening back to Ford’s assembly line or DDB’s restructuring of traditional agency teams, these changes attest to the value and reach of leaders capable of the implementation of original thinking.

Technology-driven industries have been especially important to shaping this recent change in thinking about business creativity and many leadership icons of our time – Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos, Jack Ma – have worked there. Yet creative leadership today is not simply about technological wizardry. At Apple, Jobs’ creative genius was to envision and market new horizons for emerging technologies and existing industries alike (going back to the company’s beginning, his skills were complemented by co-founder Steve Wozniak’s technical abilities in programming). The reverberations of new media and technology firms have been profound: the emergent approach to creative leadership often combines the Silicon Valley start-up ethos, traditional creative industry openness to expressiveness and exploration, design thinking, and the sheer need of all businesses to become more innovative to remain competitive and serve customers better.
The terms, leadership and management, of course are not entirely interchangeable. There are many distinctions drawn between the two, both functional (e.g., the manager administers what is; the leader innovates what will be) and cultural (Americans like to speak of leadership, Brits and other prefer management). One of the best-known is that managers focus on systems and structures while leaders focus on people. That particular distinction made good sense in the industrial era, when both managers and leaders were crucial, respectively, to organizing work and workers efficiently and to ensuring that the firm was effective, that is, competitive in the marketplace. However, in the 1990s, legendary management consultant and educator Peter Drucker recognized that such lines were increasingly blurring and less helpful in the information economy, in which the overriding task is to “make productive the specific strengths and knowledge of every individual.” Today, we might fairly extend Drucker’s insight to our own economy in which creativity is the new normal for businesses.

Understandings of creative productions and industries themselves have likewise changed dramatically during this time. The groundbreaking classification and mapping of the creative industries by the UK Department of Culture, Media and Sport first launched in 1997 has ushered in far-reaching reassessments of the status of creative activities, work and organizations around the world. While having the result of raising the profile of creative activities, such attention has been criticized by some for reducing the value of those activities to the purely economic. Richard Florida’s influential The Rise of the Creative Class (2002) claimed with comparable reach that the presence and work of creative talent could foster openness and ultimately attract business and capital to post-industrial cities. Even as the stakes of leadership in such scenarios grow far beyond individual firms or agencies, the core relationships between individuals with creative skills and talents and those seeking to marshal and direct them and their activities appear to become less oppositional and more fluid.

If creative leadership can no longer be readily understood through the tension between order and chaos, commerce and self-expression, what should be our orientation for its future? Returning to the words “creative” and “leadership” themselves, freighted as they are with history, offers some guidance. Together, they suggest bringing novel thinking to complex leadership challenges and at the same time deploying strategic prioritizing and decision-making to creative opportunities. Rather than antitheses, the words can convey a necessary balance and even symbiosis that support a sustainably successful creative business. No creative leader could ask for more.

This piece was originally written for House Magazine and also appears as a "Berlin Brief" on the Berlin School of Creative Leadership website.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Recommended Readings for Creative Leaders for the First Half of 2014

The new year has seen the publication of another crop of probing and provocative titles on economics, business and society.  Driving the most sustained public discussions thus far have been works on the inequalities driven by and increasingly defining the current economic system.  Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century (Belknap Press) is the magnum opus here, focusing on economics, with Matt Taibbi’s The Divide: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap (Spiegel & Grau) looking also at the social ramifications of inequality in the United States.  Michael Lewis’s Flash Boys: A Wall Street Revolt (Norton) arguably looks at one source of this growing disparity by examining the seeming advantage of professional, high-frequency traders over the rest of the public in financial markets.   

On the specific topics of creativity, leadership, and organizational and business success, 2014 has also already yielded some helpful titles.  Some of these are narrowly cast, for example, Ben Horowitz’ The Hard Thing about Hard Things: Building a Business When There are No Easy Answers (Harper Collins), which offers sage if targeted advice on starting a business, or Nick Udall’s “creative rollercoaster” model presented in Riding the Creative Rollercoaster: How Leaders Evoke Creativity, Productivity and Innovation (Kogan Page).  Others speak more generally to leaders across creative businesses and industries.  Following my listing last fall of useful books (, here is another baker’s dozen of recommended reads from the start of this year that speak to the work and lives of creative leaders.  Once again, they comprise a diverse list, written by industry voices, journalist or academics and providing a wealth of insights, models and concrete advice.

(1) Julian Barling, The Science of Leadership: Lessons from Research for Organizational Leaders (Oxford University Press)
Barling, an organizational behavior professor at Canada’s Queen’s University, explores some central debates about leadership – whether leaders are born or made, the relevance of gender, the import of followership – by reference to mostly psychological research conducted over the past two decades. The result is an accessible and frequently illuminating tour of the evidence shaping and underlying popular if often superficial debates. Perhaps most directly relevant to many readers will be the question (and layered answer) about the effectiveness of leadership development programs.

(2) Warren Berger, A More Beautiful Question (Bloomsbury)
What if companies had mission questions rather than mission statements? Looking closely at some of our most creative organizations, including Google, IDEO and Netflix, journalist Berger (who wrote the excellent Glimmer on design thinking) describes the importance of generating a culture of inquiry and learning. The result is potentially paradigm-shifting: rather than assuming great leaders, creatives, innovators, and entrepreneurs possess the distinctive ability to provide clear answers, the book proposes that asking the right questions might be a more fundamental skill.
(3) Adam Bryant, Quick and Nimble: Lessons from Leading CEOs on How to Create a Culture of Innovation (Times Books)
Offering consistently insightful glimpses of today’s leadership challenges and innovations, the New York Times ‘Corner Office’ column of interviews with executives appears twice weekly. In the second book drawing from his work on the column, Adam Bryant highlights lessons in innovation, change and, especially, building creative cultures. The result is a crisp summary of current leadership practice illustrated with helpful real-life examples of effective teams, increased respect, better conversations, and ongoing learning by leaders and organizations alike.
(4) Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies (Norton)
How are digital technologies – from hardware and software to networks and data sets – fueling exponential growth and profound social and economic change? Two leading thinkers from MIT explore the forces reinventing fields as diverse as medicine, retail, and transportation and having far-ranging implications for creative collaboration, business leadership and policy-making alike. Maybe most importantly, these dramatic changes will enable and necessitate a revamping of our educational system in ways that both leverage new technologies and prepare people for the transformed economy. 
(5) Ed Catmull and Amy Wallace, Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces that Stand in the Way of True Inspiration (Random House)
Catmull, co-founder and President of Pixar Animation Studios, one of the world’s most admired creative businesses, shares insights and proven techniques for harnessing talent, forming teams and structuring organizations, and producing fresh and original work. Mining his company’s illustrious production history for instructive episodes and helpful examples, he and Wallace devote special attention to the challenges of building and sustaining a creative culture.  Their closing list of principles alone constitute an essential master class in creative leadership.
(6) Lynda Gratton, The Key: How Corporations Succeed by Solving the World’s Toughest Problem (McGraw-Hill)
Professor of management practice at the London Business School and founder of the Hot Spots Movement, Gratton has produced a fresh model for scaling impact and innovating for good. ‘The Key’ is to coordinate the latest approaches to organizational design and talent development with purpose-driven support for broader communities. The outcome, she argues, is business organizations capable of confronting and solving global problems like rampant unemployment and climate change.
(7) Arianna Huffington, Thrive: The Third Metric to Redefining Success and Creating a Life of Well-being, Wisdom, and Wonder (Harmony)
Exhausted and sleep-deprived, Arianna Huffington fell and injured herself in 2007.  Amidst a battery of medical tests and soul-searching, she came to realize that there was more to success than money and power and that she – and we – needed a third metric for celebrating our lives, maintaining our sense of wonder, prioritizing our relationships, and remaining compassionate and generous. Combining personal details of her own journey with the latest psychological and sleep research, Huffington has produced a manifesto for redefining well-being, work and success.
(8) Keith Reinhard, Any Wednesday (Any Wednesday)
An original Mad Man, Reinhard was an advertising creative legend before orchestrating the merger that formed Omnicom and becoming the CEO of DDB Worldwide. For more than two decades, he penned brief weekly memos filled with wit, wisdom and advice to all his employees. This collection of 104 of those pieces both shares some of his favorite insights for inspiring creative excellence and demonstrates one way he put consistent creative leadership into accessible and effective practice.
(9) Simon Sinek, Leaders Eat Last: Why Some Teams Pull Together and Others Don’t (Portfolio)
Sinek is the perceptive, best-selling author of Start with Why (your company exists and should be meaningful to your customers and society…).  Here, he turns to the crucial questions of how leaders can foster and support safety, trust and cooperation inside that organization as well as greater kinship with customers. While citing evolutionary biology and brain chemistry research, the book ultimately argues for the fundamental leadership values of hard work, empathy and sacrifice as bases for providing a safe environment for people to grow and succeed.
(10) Biz Stone, Things a Little Bird Told Me: Confessions of the Creative Mind (Hachette)
The co-founder of Twitter offers a creative memoir of his career in Silicon Valley (thus far), starting at Google, helping to pioneer both blogging and podcasting, and then launching the social media platform.  In the process, he explores the nature and potential of ingenuity and imagination, reflecting through his personal experience on vulnerability, failure, empathy, ambition, collaboration, and creative culture.  The result is an enjoyable and inspiring read that both reveals Stone as a genuine creative leader and summarizes many of the key lessons of building successful business enterprises today.
(11) Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen, Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well (Viking)
The authors of the invaluable Difficult Conversations take on an equally challenging aspect of work and life in this new volume: how (well) do we receive feedback? Extending some of the principles of their earlier work to being less defensive and building richer relationships to engaging the feedback of others, Stone and Heen also show how to gather and process honest insights about oneself.  The result is a book that very practically enables the development of greater self-awareness and deeper learning so helpful to becoming more effective leaders.
(12) Robert Sutton and Hayagreeva Rao, Scaling Up Excellence: Getting to More Without Settling for Less (Crown Business)
This is a major work based on a decade’s research by two Stanford professors on the pervasive challenge of spreading and multiplying success in organizations. Looking across industries, and from small start-ups hoping to grow to mature large firms seeking to avoid stagnation, Sutton and Rao offer insights and proven practices for ‘scaling up’ farther, faster, and more effectively. In the process, they provide actionable advice on such vexing issues as balancing individual and organizational needs, replicating successful mindsets, and eliminating destructive behaviors.
(13) Barry Wacksman and Chris Stutzman, Connected by Design: Seven Principles of Business Transformation (Jossey-Bass)

R/GA is one of the world’s most consistently successful creative digital agencies. Wacksman, its Chief Growth Officer, describes how the agency has been a pioneer in helping develop new business models featuring highly interactive eco-systems of interrelated products, digital services, brand loyalty and continuous customer engagement. He then goes on to identify how such ‘functional integration,’ achieved by valued firms like Apple, Nike, Amazon, and Activision, can be understood according to principles ranging from ‘Utility is Relevance’ to ‘Lead like the world depends on it.’