From Ideas to Transformation and Why We Need Creative Leadership

April 10, 2023

What happens if you apply inclusive design to broken models of leadership? Rama Gheerawo, Director of the Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design, asked this question to the attendees on day two of the AIGA Executive Leadership Summit. What followed was an in-depth discussion around the three main values of creative leadership: empathy, clarity, and creativity. 

Rama pointed out that the idea of creative leadership might feel vague—and that’s because in many ways it is! Exploring the values that build on the idea of creative leadership and the ways in which these values  work together, helped to clarify the concept. Examination of how empathy, clarity and creativity insect made creative leadership a concept that could be brought back to attendees’ organizations.  

How do creative leaders harness creativity in their leadership style, and how do they apply it in their workplace? Creative leadership aims to change the world in a kind, careful, and quiet way. Everyone has leadership potential. When one is able to speak to the sensitivities of empathy, clarity, and creativity—the pillars of creative leadership—then a leader can build out this potential professional development skill. A successful creative leader will find balance between these values. 

Let’s start with empathy. Empathy is the hallmark of 21st Century leaders. While important, it’s not the only element necessary for successful leadership. Used to its highest power, empathy can help a leader understand their biases and celebrate different perspectives. When it’s missing, a leader may inadvertently cause harm. Lack of empathy can reduce visibility, and when visibility is obscured, a team can end up solving the wrong problem. 

Clarity is the leadership link that aligns vision, direction, and communications in a personal way. Clarity is about what a leader thinks, what a leader sees, and it also provides flexibility. Providing clarity is not authoritative, but rather collaborative, and it brings a level of understanding to any situation. When clarity is missing, there is a misalignment of needs, a lack of transparency, and wasted energy. Without clarity, a leader can easily take the wrong path because the clarity wasn’t there as a guide.  

Creativity is a universal ability to develop solutions that positively impact ourselves and others. It’s also a value and a process that connects and provides collaboration. When creativity is missing from a solution, a leader may rely heavily on data, resulting in processes that don’t provide the intended effect on a projects’ trajectory. A lack of creativity may lead to addressing risks that aren’t solution driven. 

If we accept that the scenarios above are true, then why is creativity left out of most leadership conversations? How do we introduce the concept of creative leadership? It’s all in the way one has the conversation, and designers have the key.How can they do this? First, establish rules, and while this does not sound creative, it is. What are the rules for bringing creativity into the room?

  • Remove hierarchy: everyone in the room has an equal say in the outcome. 
  • Nourish every idea: early stage ideation has room for every idea. There will be time to edit later. 
  • Listen and build on each other’s creativity. 
  • Allow people to be expressive and stretch the boundaries of a project. Use new words and descriptions and build a sense of shared knowledge. 
  • Create a safe space where everyone feels comfortable and empowered to share. 
  • Remove swear words from the conversion. The biggest swear word in this case is “but”. 
  • Not everything needs to be a debate. Healthy conversation moves ideas forward. Don’t stop to play devil's advocate. 
  • And finally, hijacking is not allowed. Everyone needs to stay on topic. 

What creative leadership comes down to is being able to approach projects, partners, and collaborators in a flexible way; being willing to listen, and ready to engage in solutions. When someone says that you don’t need to do the research, do the research! Make the effort to have the conversations that bring clarity to a project, spark a breakthrough, and build the needed connections for a strong solution. 

As Rama noted, courage is not a soft skill. It needs to be added to conversations to ensure  creativity is not left out of leadership conversations.