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Published: July 1, 1996

 
 

Learning to Lead Creatively

It is not enough to say that leadership in today's turbulent corporate environment is an art. Our research shows that managers can become better leaders if they literally take up the artist's pencil and the poet's pen, at least for a little while, to learn how to tap into creative skills that too often lie dormant.

The roiling business world, filled with complex problems without easy answers, demands leadership that is creative and contagious, capable of inspiring and sustaining creativity throughout an organization. Yet training in the management of innovation has either been an afterthought or has been confined to executives working in research and development, an area that is often seen as creativity's only natural home.

We believe it is critically important to expand the inherent competencies of managers -- in all parts of an organization -- for creativity and innovative thinking. And in a new course at the Center for Creative Leadership, we have seen how managers can do this by restoring their underutilized esthetic sensibilities for intuition, feeling and imagination. The trick is being exposed to a variety of artistic methods.

During the course, called "Leading Creatively," executives learn to draw, pencil on paper, from nature as well as from their feelings and intuitions. They create and interpret poems, stories, music, collages and dreams, using these as media to explore their own unique situations. And they share their artistic products and insights with others, accepting criticism and offering some, too.

One objective of the program is to help participants develop R-mode thinking -- more popularly known as right-brain thinking -- where the undervalued intuitive, imaginative and human skills reside. The goal is to offer more of a counterbalance to their already well-developed L-mode skills -- the rational, analytical, numeric and verbal capacities more typically sought in today's business managers. A better mix from both sides is needed for effective leadership of modern organizations.

For example, we worked with a team from a company that was seeking to resolve a longstanding product variability problem in a polymer manufacturing operation.The team was a cross-functional group of key managers. They viewed their task initially as an essentially technical problem, to be solved by refinement of the manufacturing process or by the invention of a new polymer.

Their first steps were rational-analytical -- collecting and analyzing more and more data. But the application of the esthetic viewpoint led to a shift in their approach.The perceived nature of the challenge was transformed from a purely technical framework to something more complex. As they drew abstract pictures of their situation, and told metaphorical stories and shared their dreams about it, they were able to reframe the issue to embrace previously unperceived sources of the variability problem.

This new approach enabled the team members to see how the problem was ingrained in the culture and politics of their company. Throughout the organization, fear and anxiety about the potential upheavals involved were getting in the way of finding a solution. Some employees feared that if the problem were solved, they and others might be laid off because there would be less need for people focused on monitoring or reworking defective products. Differences in perspectives and assumptions within the team also suddenly became apparent -- as did critical aspects of the situation that had been overlooked. Once the team perceived and articulated these complexities in detail, with appropriate perspectives and meanings, it was able to organize a much more comprehensive and effective approach to the problem.

The following are some of the esthetic competencies we have identified that are crucial to this kind of leadership turnaround.

 
 
 
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