The Innovation Blog

Creative Leadership- Is it too risky?

Posted by Creative Realities on March 1, 2011

Last month, Forbes contributor Chunka Mui posted an interesting article that addressed an upcoming study to be published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. The results of the study found that creativity negatively affected perceptions of leadership potential. In a series of experiments conducted among working adults in India and college students in the U.S., individuals perceived as “creative” were repeatedly seen as less effective leaders.

The report also made a curious analogy between creative leadership and flightless birds. For example, the first characteristic of a bird we automatically identify is its ability to fly; birds without this attribute require more time and effort to categorize. In a similar psychological process, most of us might associate a leader with someone who diminishes uncertainty by promoting clear goals for the group. In contrast, expressing unproven creative solutions involves risk and uncertainty, often deviating from the status quo. The researchers suggest that much like the flightless bird, creative leaders might require greater cognitive effort to recognize.

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Using Innovation’s 9 Critical Success Factors, we can further explore the implications of this study through a deeper analysis of creativity and leadership.

A compelling case for innovation – The study fails to address this point. Unless people understand why innovation is necessary, they will always prefer to stick with what is comfortable. In one of the studies, evaluators were asked to judge another participant’s leadership potential by pitching an answer to the following question: What could airlines do to obtain more revenue from passengers? The two conditions included “charge for in-flight meals” (useful) and “offer in-flight gambling with other passengers” (creative). Those who were randomly assigned to provide the creative solution were deemed to have significantly less leadership potential than those who generated the traditional answer. However, one major flaw in this particular study was its failure to include real world factors such as competition. What if the participants had been told that multiple other airlines already charge for meals and that there was no way for the company to compete with the existing players? Suddenly the guy with the gambling idea seems more competent.

Open-minded exploration of the four marketplace drivers of innovation – The study completely ignores this. Organizations don’t change because they want to. They change because they are forced by uncontrollable marketplace factors such as customers, competition, government regulation, and science & technology. Asking participants to rate individuals on creativity and leadership without a sense of real application creates a vacuum testing environment. When these four factors are absent, it is difficult to recognize the need for change and innovation.

Willingness to take risks and see value in absurdity – The study is dead on in this regard. In order to create a preemptive competitive advantage in the marketplace, innovators understand that you have no choice but to take risks no matter how absurd they may seem. Most organizations are not built this way. The study’s findings support this by suggesting that organizations today may face a bias against selecting the most creative individuals as leaders in favor of selecting those who would preserve the status quo by presenting useful but unoriginal solutions. This may be one reason why so many companies resist change and fail – the leaders simply cannot recognize innovative and risky solutions that deviate from the status quo. If leaders are unwilling to take risks, think creatively, and step outside their comfort zone, they quickly will be left behind in today’s fast-paced world.

After reading the study, I found myself pondering what it actually means to be a creative leader. To be realistic, not all creative people have the skills to influence others – a crucial leadership trait. At the same time, not all leaders have to be personally creative in order to recognize a unique opportunity. If leaders are responsible for providing new direction for their followers, they must foster innovation within their community. While they don’t need to be the originators of the ideas, leaders must be the open-minded promoters of change and creativity. Once we realize the importance of creativity and innovation, perhaps we will start to recognize innovative individuals as effective leaders as easily as we recognize penguins as birds. 

- Lorie Lin, Business Innovationist Intern

Topics: creativity, Lorie Lin, Innovation, Compelling Case for Innovation, 9 Critical Success Factors, creative problem solving, leadership