Question: How can you succeed applying creative leadership principles when creativity and innovation have little support in the executive suite? (The answer may surprise you.)
Answer: You can’t!
That’s right, you can’t. If you’re disappointed, stand in line. I have met many, many managers – both staff managers and project managers – who try to practice the principles of creative leadership but are frustrated by their organizational cultures. And I feel deeply sad when I hear that kind of story, because it means one more flame of inspiration will be coughing and sputtering just to stay alive. If you wonder where cynicism in the workplace comes from, you need look no further.
I used to recommend a guerrilla tactic to these folks. I advised them to establish creative work practices in their area of responsibility and focus on helping creative practices succeed there. I said they could use that as a beachhead. The idea was that the small success would spread organically, despite organizational resistance, because everybody loves success.
But I found that this guerrilla tactic only works occasionally, and then only because a powerful ally emerges in the leadership team. Having seen the profound discouragement all those other times, when no knight in shining armor materialized, I can no longer recommend it.
You see, the executive team is in many ways like an elephant, and if it wants to block the road, you’re sunk. Very frequently, the elephant is the CEO him or herself. So I’ve changed my approach and now I start right at the top. In doing so I’ve found many executives who simply don’t believe that creativity has an important role to play in the fabric of their organization.
I’m happy to work with someone who values creativity as an organizational strategy, even if they have doubts about its applicability or effectiveness in their situation. We can work together, and I can help them overcome the real and perceived obstacles.
But I absolutely will not work with people who don’t see the business value of creativity to begin with. I’ve concluded that their minds will only be changed by the success of their more creative competitors. So I explore the issue right up front, and I winnow out the doubters as soon as possible. That way I get to spend much more time with those creative competitors.
There’s a lesson here for those of you interested in change, creative or otherwise: when you’re traveling through a jungle, you’ll enjoy the trip much more if your elephant blazes the trail and gives you a ride.