Skip to contentSkip to navigation

Is Creativity a Bad Trait for a Senior Leader?

Supporters of the status quo — not the creative types — are seen as more effective.

(originally published by Booz & Company)

Title: Recognizing Creative Leadership: Can Creative Idea Expression Negatively Relate to Perceptions of Leadership Potential? (Fee required.)
Authors: Jennifer S. Mueller (University of Pennsylvania), Jack Goncalo (Cornell University), and Dishan Kamdar (Indian School of Business)
Publisher: Journal of Experimental Social Psychology
Date Published: December 2010

Don’t be too creative with your business ideas, this paper warns. Unless you have plenty of charisma to complement your creativity, thinking outside the box could keep you out of top management. Companies say they want fresh ideas from their leaders, and most researchers concentrate on the positive impact made by creative bosses. But this study focuses on how stereotypes about “creative types” and “effective leaders” clash, leading people to believe that their innovative colleagues aren’t cut out for the top spots.

Psychologists have established that to most people, the prototypical leader reduces uncertainty and promotes stability, emphasizing shared goals and group identity to preserve the status quo. The stereotypes of creative people are at odds with that definition; the very act of advocating unproven solutions can be seen as rocking the boat.

The researchers conducted two experiments to gauge how bias against creative thinkers factored into whether they were seen as suitable for top jobs. The first asked 364 employees at a refinery in India, whose jobs required them to find innovative solutions, to rank their colleagues’ level of creative expression and leadership potential. Even in a workplace that prized creativity, relatively creative people were seen as less likely to become leaders.

In the next experiment, nearly 400 undergraduates in the United States were assigned first to be idea pitchers and then to be evaluators. The evaluators were asked to rank the pitchers on the strength of their ideas and their leadership potential.

In the experiment, creative types were seen as just as competent and personable as their purely useful peers, but were judged less fit for leadership. However, when primed to think that the creative person also demonstrated stereotypically charismatic traits, such as uniqueness and individualism, the evaluators were more likely to regard that person as a potential leader. “A charismatic leader is expected to take the group in a new, novel direction,” says Cornell University’s Jack Goncalo, one of the study’s authors. “If you are supposed to be a transformative leader, then actually being creative in those conditions is an asset.”

Still, the findings indicate that the dominant model of leadership is one that encourages useful, noncreative solutions. The researchers also argue that creative employees are gradually filtered out on their journey up the corporate ladder. 

Bottom Line: Because of conflicting stereotypes about creativity and leadership, stakeholders prefer the prototype of a leader they see as fostering a stable and secure environment. However, creative people who are also charismatic stand a better chance of advancing.

Get s+b's award-winning newsletter delivered to your inbox. Sign up No, thanks
Illustration of flying birds delivering information
Get the newsletter

Sign up now to get our top insights on business strategy and management trends, delivered straight to your inbox twice a week.