Secrets to Lead Creatives Successfully — a The True North Leader’s Guide


Creativity is intelligence having fun. Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world. — Albert Einstein

The world revolves around the efforts of creative people.

It thrives on their accomplishments. From great literature to movies to music. From Michelangelo and da Vinci to Bono and McCartney, our world absorbs the creativity of geniuses and amateurs every hour of every day. It is estimated, for example, that we are bombarded with over 3000 commercial messages each day; those, it can be argued, are creative efforts — ask any advertising art director.

So why is it that so many leaders find working with the very humans who contribute to their success, taxing — at best — impossible, at worst?

I’ve served as the dean at two universities charged with leading faculty and students in the communication and media arts worlds. And I’ve produced media projects huge and small. Stage and screen actors, filmmakers, sculptors and graphic designers, writers, musicians, producers and directors. These are the people who all create non-stop.

What makes them so different? And for many, so difficult?

The True North leader’s understanding of creatives must start at the Beginning. Literally.

What is the very first thing we learn about God? If you’re struggling with this one, guessing it’s a trick question, stop. Genesis 1:1, “In the beginning, God created….” Pearl S. Buck may have summarized the Genesis process perfectly, “Imagination is the beginning of creation. Without imagination there can be no creation.”

Wow. Wouldn’t you love to have God’s imagination?

So, for anyone who has read the Bible as literature or as their holy book, isn’t it fascinating that the author (Moses, apparently) felt it important that we are introduced to our maker as a creative being whose efforts got this entire thing rolling from the git-go?

In this blog space several months ago, I argued an apologetic that the presence of the Creator God living (indwelling) physically within believers creates a “super power” unknown and unavailable to others. This dynamic of God’s Holy Spirit provides an unending source of creativity, wisdom and insight “on demand.” Meaning, even the slightest whispered prayer for help engages our spirit with His. And then, all the fullness of God is fully at the ready for our good.

OK. We’ve established the value of creativity and acknowledged its source. So why do so many leaders find leading creative people so challenging? As mentioned, I’ve worked for, with and led these folks for many years. Here are a few observations that speak to an answer:

· You can’t fit creatives in a box.

Many artists (of all disciplines) simply cannot be categorized, locked-up, nor do they want to be.

· You can’t tie creatives down.

Their minds are constantly in motion — even in their sleep. And because their mind wanders in so many directions, and often without landing anywhere to provide clarity or direction for action, we’ve taken to labeling them: ADHD. Now the diagnosis is often correct, but when the label is used as a pejorative, we diminish the fact that creatives are simply wired differently than “common” folks.

· Their senses are fully engaged nearly 100% of the time.

Creatives are often the most astute observers on your team. Every new stimulus they see, hear, smell, touch or taste leads to new ideas. And since this is a continuous activity, sitting still for a meeting may be the single most boring and painful prospect in their day.

· Idea ownership is a high priority for creatives.

Whether the idea simply popped into their mind instantly, or they struggled through a creative process, the creative person highly values the result. Consequently and often, they can be very possessive of their ideas and dogmatic and inflexible about who, why and how someone (the boss?) hopes to implement their dream.

Creativity has been the subject of myriad academic and professional studies. In fact, so many that I won’t even link you to the top hundred or so. If you’re really fascinated, google the subject and enjoy.

In addition, much has been written about how to improve your own creative processes and thinking. These are important areas to explore especially if you need to work closely and more effectively with these rare folks. Here’s a good article from Inc. to help you become a more creative thinker.

But, herein, our purpose is to learn how to better lead creative individuals and teams. Here are a few observations followed by a few important suggestions:

· Since creatives don’t fit into your comfortable “boxes,” don’t keep trying to force them into one. When they need space to think, make it safe for them to get away — leave the office environment; go get coffee off premises. Give them the freedom they need to do what they do best: ideate!

· Encourage their journey of creative discovery. Get to know your creatives. Ask them about their dreams (not yours or the company’s; those should already be somewhat aligned if you hired for FIT). Pay attention for opportunities to match their skills and dreams with your needs and plans.

· If you are ever in the unenviable position of having creatives in the same meeting with executives and bean-counters, make sure to have a translator available. Someone who speaks and appreciates both languages. Friction will rule the room if you don’t.

Suggestions for leading creative people:

· Communicate clearly. Let your creatives know what you need done, but don’t try to force how they get to the goal.

· Input. They’re happy to give their opinions, ideas and solutions, but typically — only when you ask. But beware: when you do ask, make sure they know how seriously you take their input. Value their ideas, that way, you keep the stream open.

· Remember, they will be emotionally attached to their ideas and work product. Use caution and diplomacy if you choose not to use their creations.

· Financial rewards are far less appealing to most creatives. Your approbation and acknowledgement of their efforts work far better. Theirs is a deeply intrinsic motivation. You’ll know this when you’ve truly invested time and energy to get to know them.

· Accountability. Always a sticky-wicket here. Give deadlines, but make them reasonable. Give budget parameters, but make them realistic. Give a clear understanding of the value of the project and the ramifications of missing the mark.

· Those are boundaries that are necessary for all your work force. Creatives, however, desperately need boundaries and deadlines to function safely. But they also crave the freedom to move about independently, not feeling stifled by your processes.

Much of this may sound like working with creatives is as difficult as you’ve imagined or experienced. And so, not worth all the effort. If that’s your mindset, I promise you will find working with these bright people to be highly frustrating and problematic.

But it’s the job of the True North leader to adapt to the skills, needs and strengths of all your followers. Accountants or artists. Most likely, you don’t run a successful shop without both.

When you unlock the Creator-given creative capacities in your people, you release them to fulfill their calling. You empower them to fulfill God’s dreams for them. You open up a universe of possibilities that ultimately benefit you and your enterprise.

Unlock! Release! Empower!

Norm Mintle