BLG Leadership Insights Features Managerial Competence

Why No One Wants Creativity at the Top

According to a recent survey of 1,500 chief executives conducted by IBM’s Institute for Business Value, CEOs identify “creativity,” the ability to generate novel and useful solutions, as the most important leadership competency for the successful organization of the future.   Creative leadership allows leaders to move organizations in profitable new directions, a view supported by management research showing that leaders with creative ability are more effective at promoting positive change and inspiring their followers than leaders who lack creative ability.  Clearly there is a great deal at stake when attempting to identity the creative leaders in our midst, but do people actually get it right?

My colleagues and I have found that although people claim to want creative leadership, people who voice creative solutions are actually viewed as having lower levels of leadership potential.  In other words, if you want the top spot, you had better keep your creativity in check.  We found strong evidence to support this assertion from three different studies using different methodologies and a diverse set of participants–both employees and undergraduates.  For example, in one study, we told participants they would be participating in a mock interview.  One set of participants were randomly instructed to come up with a “creative” solution (e.g. both novel and useful) to a business problem while another set of participants were randomly instructed to come up with a “practical” solution (e.g. just useful).  Each participant was judged by an evaluator who was specifically instructed to listen to the response and rate the applicant on their overall leadership potential and their potential for creative leadership.  Who came out on top?  Not the creative types.  Interviewers consistently overlooked the creative applicants in favor of their more practical counterparts.  They did so despite the fact that the creative solutions were just as feasible as the practical solutions, they were just more novel.  In other words, the creative applicants were expressing exactly the kinds of ideas that most innovative firms claim to be looking for.

The psychological process behind this bias is relatively simple:  Stereotypes of “creative people” and “effective leaders” clash in the minds of those who are responsible for judging leadership potential.  When deciding whether or not someone “fits” a particularly category (e.g. a leader) most people compare that person’s qualities to an ideal type.  The prototypical leader is expected to organize and coordinate groups to diminish uncertainty and promote order by emphasizing shared goals.  The prototypical leader is also expected to conform to group norms and goals in order to support the group identity and to promote collective action.  People who behave in ways that convey these characteristics to others are readily categorized as fitting the leadership prototype.

Does the typical creative individual fit this prototype?  As you probably guessed—no, not really.  The mere expression of creative solutions may actually introduce ambiguity or uncertainty, in part, because by definition, novel ideas involve deviations from the status quo and are not yet proven. People who express creative ideas are often viewed as unpredictable, rebellious, unorthodox, and unconventional – traits which run contrary to deeply rooted expectations that prototypical leaders diminish uncertainty and provide normative order.  So, it is no surprise then that creative people are filtered out on the way to the top.  We claim to want creativity but end up favoring, hiring and electing people who uphold the status quo.

Picture Credit: Smaedli

BLG Leadership Insights Managerial Competence

Leading a Can-Do Culture: The Management Challenge of the Day

In today’s New York Times, David Brooks astutely points out that the challenge for GM is cultural, and not simply structural or financial. He notes:

On Jan. 21, 1988, a General Motors executive named Elmer Johnson wrote a brave and prophetic memo. Its main point was contained in this sentence: “We have vastly underestimated how deeply ingrained are the organizational and cultural rigidities that hamper our ability to execute.”

On Jan. 26, 2009, Rob Kleinbaum, a former G.M. employee and consultant, wrote his own memo. Kleinbaum’s argument was eerily similar: “It is apparent that unless G.M.’s culture is fundamentally changed, especially in North America, its true heart, G.M. will likely be back at the public trough again and again.”

In the final analysis, the challenge of leadership for our times is creating if not refocusing on our notion that we can accomplish things.  Leaders have to take the responsibility for communal and organizational culture.  Before anything else, they have to focus on the sense that we’ve regained our sense of cultural momentum, that we’ve overcome inertia and hesitation has been left behind.

Have you heard, “We have a can-do culture?” Or, “We have a culture that stays on top of things?” Sometimes momentum is a question of your ability to ingrain the culture of the group into the individual. In some organizations, you walk in and you immediately have the sense that they can run with the ball and go the distance. Such a culture is one of “drive.” Consider firefighters. Theirs is a culture full of tradition. They reinforce expected behavior through the stories of the heroic deeds of their brethren, by recounting pivotal events, important people and their actions. They tell and retell stories that subtly and not so subtly communicate how a firefighter is supposed to engage in that organization and that build a sense of belonging among its members. Firefighters take action and extraordinary risk because of their strong sense of mission.  As a result, their focused drive saves lives. The most effective leaders of firefighters are able to sustain momentum by using the firefighter culture to inspire and deliver outstanding commitment and superior performance.

Imagine two groups with comparable resources. One group shows results, while the other can’t seem to get anything done. They start a lot of projects, but they finish nothing. They don’t have the capacity to go the distance. Sure, they may listen to the same CEO give the same call to action. But when it comes to implementing an agenda or demonstrating superior results, even though the teams have similar talent, a similar organization, “the B team” somehow falls short. Their agenda goes unfulfilled. You’ve seen plenty of examples of this. The new product launch, which was so highly touted, turns into a money pit. The reorganization that was supposed to improve customer satisfaction results in customer confusion. The rollout of a performance management system gets stuck in meeting paralysis. The best-laid plans become some of the worst-laid eggs.

In many of these cases, the X factor is cultural momentum. Using value and purpose, the leader of the “A team” created a sense of belonging, commitment, and collaboration among the group’s members. People relate to others in the group. They relate to the group as a whole. In a real sense, they define themselves in relation to the group and/or the initiative. This is the foundation of cultural momentum that will get this team through adversity.