Leadership As Creativity: Finding the Opportunity Hidden Within Decision
Making and Dialogue
"I must follow the people, am I not their leader?" -- Benjamin Disraeli
"You gotta improvise on somethin' man, you can't just improvise on nothin'." Charles Mingus, the jazz composer and musician, gives us a clear sense of the need for vision. Mingus would probably agree that leadership and decision making are little more than a constant improvisation on that agreed-upon sense of direction ... that vision.
If organizational leaders were also working as jazz musicians we would likely have less need for another tract on management and, instead, have organizations able to support more vigorously the work of today's artists
How have we so distanced ourselves from providing support for creative individuals and their free expression? Do we have the will to reclaim this responsibility and begin to craft an aspirational approach to leadership and decision making?
Since we have committed our professional lives to supporting creativity, why not begin there, by looking at what separates creative leaders from the others? Malcolm Knowles, writing at the University of Queensland in 1983 in his book The Adult Learner, A Neglected Species described the eight tenets of creative leadership.
The Creative Leader makes a different set of assumptions(essentially positive) about human nature. Creative leaders have faith in people, offer them challenging opportunities, and delegate responsibility to them. When people perceive the locus of control to reside within themselves, they are more creative and productive, and the greater their achievement.
The Creative Leader accepts as a law of human nature that people feel a commitment to a decision in proportion to the extent that they feel they have participated in making it. Creative leaders, therefore involve their artists, audience and communities in every step of planning.
The Creative Leader believes in and uses the power of the self-fulfilling prophecy. They understand that people tend to come up to other people's expectations for them. The relationship between positive self-concept and superior performance has been demonstrated in numerous studies.
The Creative Leader highly values individuality. The sense that people operate on a higher level when they are operating on the basis of their unique strengths, interests, talents, and goals than when they are trying to conform to some imposed stereotype and tightly defined set of assigned responsibilities.
The Creative Leader stimulates and rewards creativity. They understand that in a world of accelerating change, creativity is the basic requirement for the survival of individuals, organizations and societies. They exemplify creativity in their own behavior and provide an environment that encourages and rewards creativity in others.
The Creative Leader is committed to a process of continuous change and is skillful in managing change. They understand the difference between static and innovative organizations, and aspire to make their organization innovative.
The Creative Leader emphasizes internal motivators over external motivators. They understand that achievement, growth, fulfilling work, responsibility and advancement are essential and that organizational policy, supervision, salary, status, are non essential to high performance.
The Creative Leader encourages people to be self-directing. They sense intuitively what researchers have been telling us for some time--that a universal characteristic of the maturation process is movement from a state of dependency toward states of increasing self directedness.
To even attempt to be a creative leader one must put to rest the myth that great leaders are born. The ability to be a leader is the result of a lifetime of effort constantly improving communications skills, reflecting on personal values and aligning one's behavior with those values, learning how to listen and appreciate others and their ideas. Individual discipline and organizational progress go hand-in-hand. As the leader develops and evolves, so does the organization. Organizations do not move forward on their own. They may move, but with little promise that the momentum will be toward the vision.
John Kao, director of the Idea Factory and author of Jamming, The Art and Discipline of Business Creativity, argues persuasively that for individuals to feel they are truly responsible for their own decisions, they must be imbued with a "Creativity Bill of Rights":
It's quite simple, really. Form follows function. We work in support of creative people and our job is merely to be creative and insist others do the same.
The area where all this comes to life is in decision making, where being informed and being creative is as elemental as being decisive.
"The lay persons idea of high level decision making is a simple one-act drama. The leader sits alone on a bare and silent stage. Two aides enter. One states the argument for choosing path A, the other for choosing path B. The lay person is strongly inclined to believe that one of the paths must be clearly right, the other clearly wrong. Black or white. The good versus the bad. The leader chooses.
Ring down the curtain on that charade, and lift the curtain on the real world of the functioning leader. The stage is crowded; there is not just one leader but several and they clearly have differing views. Everyone is talking at once and portions of the audience continually surge onto the stage. And there is a large clock on the wall that ticks off the minutes like hammer blows. Before the clock strikes noon, a great many decisions must be made. And on virtually none of them is there a virtuous path A or a wicked path B. Indeed there rarely are just two sides or two parties to the dispute. There's relatively little black and white, mostly shades of gray." -- John Gardner, founder of Common Cause and the author of On Leadership
There are no set rules about decision making -- except to appreciate the ambiguity and the tensions at play and to appreciate the tremendous paradox surrounding the really big decisions. Tensions apparent in any organization include: the established in conflict with the new; the need for form and the drive toward openness; critical standards and the need to experiment -- to fail; the security of the familiar and the lure of the unknown; discipline in tension with freedom and autonomy; expertise in tension with freshness.
The lessons for managers are akin to those for the jazz musician -- to use these conflicts, yet not try to resolve them. "The role of the manager is to work the central paradox, or tension. To locate the ever mobile sweet spot, somewhere between system and analysis on the one hand and free flowing creativity of individuals on the other" (John Kao).
This is especially true when planning. Henry Mintzburg, author of The Rise and Fall of Strategic Planning and the insightful article "Crafting Strategy" says, "The future is an abstraction...it never arrives." It is always "out yonder." Planning, according to Mintzburg, can only accomplish two objectives: it gives us an image of the future, and; allows us to make decisions about actions we take now that will impact that future when it arrives. Thinking (planning) and acting (doing) are inseparable. Formal planning -- especially that type typically labeled "strategic" (a word widely used yet seldom defined) -- can put too much distance between these two.
So where can creativity, ambiguity, tension, and decisiveness come together in a healthy environment that regards the integrity of the individual and the value of the organization equally? This is accomplished only through dialogue.
We believe in our own views and want them to prevail. This is often in conflict with the need for potentially valuable information and opinions that others may have. Herein lies the value of dialogue, and of collaborative learning about options and potential. Collectively we can be more insightful, more intelligent than we can be individually. The IQ of the team can potentially be much greater than the IQ of the individual. The physicist and quantum theorist David Bohm calls it "...becoming open to the flow of a larger intelligence." The purpose is to go beyond any one individual's understanding. Through dialogue, better decisions can be reached.
When approached correctly, dialogue becomes a means by which we may have the most precious of gifts -- the ability to observe our own thinking. How is this accomplished?
To many, this is in conflict with: their management training, behavior they have seen modeled, and their own need for order and predictability. That conflict is rich, it is the fertile ground upon which a manager may grow. As Pat Metheny the jazz guitarist says, "Every so often you do get it right and that makes it even more difficult. The standard to which you adhere keeps getting higher and higher."
Kao, John. Jamming, The Art and Discipline of Business Creativity. New York: Harper Collins, 1996.
This is Kao's fifth book on creativity and focuses on the discipline required to carry out splendid ideas and concepts often arising from the retreat environment. He emphasizes commitment as well as identifies novel and proven implementation strategies. A great way to think about moving from vision to action!
Kayser, Thomas. Mining Group Gold. El Segundo, CA: Serif Publishing, 1990.
Places an emphasis on managing people and ideas through careful planning and artful facilitation. Filled with plain spoken and practical advice.
Knowles, Malcolm. The Adult Learner, A Neglected Species. London: Gulf Publishing, 1990.
Now in its fourth edition, this text clarifies how we as adults pursue learning new things and how organizations must respond creatively. Skilled facilitation is seen by Knowles as essential to adult learning in a fast-paced world.
Mintzberg, Henry. The Rise and Fall of Strategic Planning. New York: The Free Press, 1994.
An esteemed iconoclast examines the very idea and value of planning in this provocative book. Strategy cannot be planned because planning is about analysis, and strategy is about synthesis. That is why, Mintzberg purports, the process has failed so often and so drastically. A must read of executive and department heads.
Rosen, Robert. The Healthy Company. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1991.
Rosen is a psychologist who created the non-profit Healthy Companies Institute in Washington, DC and now speaks internationally on the 20 essential conditions necessary in maintaining a healthy organization. Author and organizational expert Warren Bennis calls it "...one of the most important management books of the decade."
Senge, Peter. The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook. New York: Doubleday Books, 1994.
Senge's follow-up to his highly insightful and provocative The Fifth Discipline. The book provides strategies and tools for building learning environments and promoting true dialogue across the organization.
Wheatley, Margaret and Kellner-Rogers, Myron. A Simpler Way. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 1996.
Wheatley and Kellner-Rogers explore how organizations and their patterns are rooted in nature. Many penetrating questions demanding both reflection and action. A powerful message!
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