What makes someone a leader? If you believe in Simon Sinek’s theory, it’s about understanding there is a difference between a leader and those who lead. Leaders are people in a position of prominence, figureheads, while those who lead are people who others willingly follow, obey and take orders from. Not all leaders lead, but all of those who lead can create action.
What makes someone creative? I would like to believe that’s not quantified by the arts and sciences. In its most basic form, creativity is the art of creating. Creation can be anything from the building of a conversation to the design of a structure, creating a soothing way to stop a toddler from crying or crafting the most effective headline in advertising history. In other words, there is no shortage of creative ways to define someone as creative.
So, what makes a true creative leader? It is my opinion that to be a true leader, you must follow in the verbal footprints of a president, botanist and cartoonist.
Teddy Roosevelt, soldier, author, explorer and, oh, by the way, 26th President of the United States once said, “People ask the difference between a leader and a boss. The leader leads, and the boss drives.”
George Washington Carver, botanist, inventor and chemist believed that, “Where there is no vision, there is no hope.”
Matt Groening, creator of The Simpsons and Futurama, says, “Living creatively is really important to maintain throughout your life. And living creatively doesn’t mean only artistic creativity, although that’s part of it. It means being yourself, not just complying with the wishes of other people.”
If you were to put these words of wisdom into a blender, it would pour out to read:
Someone who leads with a vision, while staying true to themselves.
This could be the mission statement for all creative leaders. Just look at the success of these three different icons on very different roads to success and tell me this statement doesn’t hold true.
After all, while Roosevelt was president, he still stayed true to his convictions—including his respect for wildlife. A true naturalist and avid hunter, he once refused to shoot a bear caught by his hunting party and tied to a tree. He found it unsportsmanlike and against the values of game hunting. (The popularity of this story led to the creation of the Teddy Bear.)
Washington Carver turned down a six-figure job offer from Thomas Edison because he was motivated not by money, but by serving his fellow man.
Groening named The Simpsons after his own family. The town of Springfield was even named after his own hometown. As for Bart, his haircut mimics the style Matt had when he was a rowdy 10-year-old.
After I extracted this new definition of creative leadership—someone who leads with a vision, while staying true to themselves—I realized that encapsulated my personal view on what I look for in a creative leader.
To get to the core of what makes someone a creative leader, I would say creative leadership consists of being:
- Knowledgeable – Have the education, experience or “war stories” that help drive a brainstorm or flesh out an idea. Knowledge can be book smart, people smart or a strong mix of both.
- Understandable – Message is loud and clear. Convictions and goals are outlined and executed. Leading by example in both presentation and in business etiquette.
- Shareable – No closed doors. Ideas are bounced around. No hierarchy when it comes to best solutions. No fear in sharing ideas, views or hunches.
- Excitable – The job is still exciting. A good idea is a launch pad. A spark of enthusiasm carries throughout the department and keeps morale high.
- Relatable – Grounded in their work and not their title. Can relate to the struggles of an intern and the struggles of direct reports. Isn’t afraid to jump into the work when help is needed. “Knows the feeling” and “Believe me, I understand” are a daily vernacular.
In the past, I’ve found I got along with the “leaders” of an agency best when they weren’t afraid to show humility and comes off as sincere. They have a backbone when defending work, a funny bone to keep spirits up and aren’t afraid to have a bone to pick when seeing subpar performance.
However, I wanted to see how others define creative leadership. I asked a variety of co-workers what they thought.
Our intern, Taylor, believes that a creative leader should have “the power to inspire, encourage and unite others in an unexpected way in the face of expectation.”
One of our talented AAEs, Bethany, finds that creative leadership “is fully tapping into the strengths and skills of your entire team to forge new paths to improved solutions instead of relying on what you have always done and what is comfortable. Creative leadership encompasses those who go to great lengths to understand what makes their team members tick and use this information to motivate them to be more than just a cog in the machine.”
Senior Art Director, Sarah, defines it as someone who can “both challenge individuals to never stop growing their talent. Plus, that person should be a constant demonstration on how inspiration is a form of thinking, not just bolts of lightning.”
Associate Art Director, Brian (B-Rye to all of us), sees creative leadership as “being an individual who allows for others to explore new areas of interest yet is willing to guide them back when they have ventured too far from what was expected.”
Unprompted and given just the question, “How would you define creative leadership?” one thing is abundantly clear from the responses. There was no position of power, but a position of collaboration. Gone was the mention of a title, but instead the trust in team. Found are traits for those who lead.
So, what makes a creative leader? An open mind, influential characteristics and a down-home persona that makes everyone feel right at home with their career.
Now, go lead in creative ways.
Jason Gottshall is a senior copywriter at AKHIA.