The dance of creative leadership: 5 principles of facilitating flow (uncut version) 



Illustration by The Partners


This article was originally published on Virgin’s Entrepreneur. However, as they were looking for a blog post, it had to be cut in half, with the models, one principle cut out and another central idea removed. I’m bringing it here because I think there is value in the deeper stuff.
Read the other version if you want something more top-line or if that to much, here’s a TL;DR:
Creative leadership can be seen as the facilitation of Flow. To achieve it you have to engage the full organisation and carefully navigate conflicting elements/agendas. 

(If you want to publish it on your platform, let me know.)

Another impossible demand?

The demands from leadership have never been higher. The focus on performance is still there, but across many sectors, the environment is more volatile and disruptive than it has ever been. Vision is no longer enough; a leader should instil his or her team with a sense of purpose. Innovation used to belong at the start of a process, now it’s continuous. And, of course, as we shift away from patriarchal views of leadership as inherently masculine, we add emotional intelligence, empathy, intuition, social awareness and so on…

And now there’s creativity, without which there will be no innovation (which, to an extent is the practical application of creativity). While innovation has many models and processes, creativity, which should generate the ideas that drive innovation, remains more enigmatic. How do you manage something so mysterious and ‘fluffy’? Is there a method to it? Is it simply down to the leader being creative, or is it about them leading the organisation’s creativity, or both?

When discussing old-school leadership vs contemporary leadership practices, some stereotypes are very much alive. That’s a shame, because if, when we’re talking about the new demands on leadership, we simply contrast them with a Machiavellian command and control straw-man, we will not push the new paradigm far enough, and we’ll miss the big picture. Instead, we should take a more integrative view.

Here are five principles that draw on both ancient and new leadership approaches.

1. The creative leader ensures the freedom of the team

In the drive for organisational innovation, there’s a lot of emphasis on creating an entrepreneurial culture — one where creative ideas percolate and rise up through the business, creating new offerings. Without creativity, you can’t have an entrepreneurial culture because creativity generates the content.

The trouble is that in many cases the phrase ‘entrepreneurial organisation’ simply means self-motivated staff. You know, people who do what you want them to without having to be told. It’s a little bit like the way parents praise their children for independence if the child’s behaviour pleases the parent. When children do whatever they want, and it conflicts with parental expectations, they get called something else.

So the first step, if you want be a creative leader, is to create the space and freedom that people need to come up with ideas and run with them, even if they don’t obviously align with your current business model.

This isn’t a new concept. The idea of a leader that nurtures a team, lets it thrive and encourages taking the initiative without asking permission for every single step, goes back as far as Sun Tzu’s The Art of War. It’s built into the leadership principles of many armies, and is quite central in the leadership principles of the US marines. The more recent Functional Leadership Model states that a leader can be said to have done their job well when they have contributed to group effectiveness and cohesion

Well, in a world of disruption, cohesive and effective groups become disruptors, and when they inevitably get disrupted, they need to be able to challenge the fundamentals of their business. As a result — there’s a central aspect of creative leadership that is hands off. Obviously, it’s not about the single leader coming up with an idea or knowing the answer. But if all the leader does is give people limited autonomy within the existing boundaries, it’s not going to be enough for the type of breakthrough ideas required.

2. Facilitate ‘flow’ to optimise creativity

The Managerial grid model. Source: Wikipedia

As we introduce unprecedented levels of independence, we create a significant challenge to most management systems. An effective way to look at it would be through the Managerial Grid Model, in development since the 60s, because it captures the two competing agendas at the heart of traditional management. One is the production focus and the other is people focus. And along the way, we meet some familiar, if stereotypical, management styles, and can see how they tackle creativity.

The interesting thing we’ll discover is that even if problematic management styles could get away with it in the past, the demand for creativity makes it impossible. The strictly production-focused dictatorial type oppresses creativity — either people will just avoid coming up with new ideas or trying them, or, more likely, you’ll see a mass exodus of creative people leaving the organisation. The people-pleaser manager will likely create a committee effect on creativity, where everybody has to be heard and nothing happens. In the meantime, the status-quo driven middle-of-the-road manager would both dilute creativity to appease political restraints and sacrifice it piece by piece to production constraints.

So it emerges that creative leadership has to be both people focused and production focused, which, on this traditional view of leadership, seems almost impossibly ambitious. In fact this would fit only 1 out of the 7 types of leaders identified by the model (and a rare one at that).

The level of freedom required by creativity threatens both the people focused and the production focused agendas. So beyond giving people space, independence and the opportunity to be creative, how do you actually make sure that when using all that resource (and make no mistake, this requires investment) people make the most of it and are both creative and productive (if only productive in their creativity to begin with)?

Challenge vs Skill and mental state. Source: Wikipedia

Luckily, there’s a famous theory about a state where people are in their most creative and productive mode and happy with their work. That is, of course, the ‘flow’ theory from famously unpronounceable Czech-American psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Csikszentmihalyi describes flow as: ‘being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.’

Now, because Flow is creative, productive and joyful, it actually places people at the sweet spot as far as both axis of the managerial matrix are concerned. How do you get people to achieve flow more frequently and stay there for longer? Flow theory suggests its own useful matrix which balances the scale of the challenge with the level of skill.

Too much challenge ends in anxiety. Too much skill with not enough challenge ends, at best, with a very relaxed and likely unproductive team. If the skill level isn’t that great either you’re left with boredom and apathy.

So the best way for the creative leader to facilitate flow is to help people build and exercise their skills while moderating the challenge levels to keep the right balance in place.

But an interesting aspect of facilitating flow is that managing skill and challenge is too complex to be the job of single leader. Which brings us to the next principle.

3. Creative leadership is an organisation-wide imperative

If facilitating flow is monitoring/moderating the challenge level while building the team’s skill, then it is a job that requires support from other parts of the organisation.

Moderating challenge will sometimes be about managing stakeholder expectations, but more often it will be encouraging stakeholders to go for braver solutions and pushing the team to take on bigger challenges. In professional services, it will often mean convincing clients to be more ambitious in their objectives and their projects — thus, client leaders have a great role. In more consumer-led organisations, it may be about the marketing team helping customers embrace new technologies or service models.

Growing skills requires training and thus HR must be on board. And of course, the procurement and finance teams need to be ok with the cost implications. They should not just lean back and wait to be convinced, but understand this is an investment crucial to the long-term sustainability of a business. They have a role building the business case just as much as anyone else.

4. The art of getting out of the way

The initial freedom we mentioned as the first principle makes a return here. Once the entire organisation is involved, it’s too easy to rely on rigid procedures, structures and report mechanisms that may fall back into the single dimensions of production or people.

It’s a confusing situation because managers have a tendency to ‘take charge’ of a changing situation. This is often encouraged and in fact is at the heart of the situational and contingency theories of leadership. The cultural challenge here is that this principle not only conflicts with old-school ‘born to command and control’ stereotypes of trait-based leadership, it also conflicts with more flexible and newer styles of ‘hands-on’ leadership.

The good news is that this principle requires mostly self-control to execute. Just get out of the way. When people are in flow, let them be in flow and develop their ideas. Watch from afar as the magic happens. Notice opportunities and problems, but keep them to yourself for a while. Once things have developed enough and it’s time to start connecting them to reality, then you step back in. It requires sensitivity and intuition, but most of all it requires you to get out of the way.

5. And the equally important art of getting things back on track

Brennan’s Hierarchy of Imagination by John Maeda

Freedom to imagine is at the top of the Maslow’s inspired ‘Brennan’s Hierarchy of Imagination’ created by legendary designer and MIT Media Lab Professor, John Maeda, following a conversation with public health innovator Patti Brennan.

What we see in this model is that creativity lives in the space between the ‘completely unrestrained’ imagination and the more pragmatic ‘problem-solving’.

We can also see that there’s alignment between those modes and the production vs. people tension mentioned before.

Creative leaders help their teams walk the winding creative path between problem solving and imagination. They don’t let them fall into pure problem-solving — production driven, too constrained, likely linear and unlikely to result in disruption (important, but for more fully baked ideas). But they’re also responsible for bringing them back from the realm of pure imagination. Too much imagination and nothing ever becomes a reality. Too much problem solving and you fall into the reflexive knee-jerk world of survival mode business.

Here, again, it would require not just re-engaging with the team, but also engaging with the organisation — creating space for imagination, keeping production pressures at bay as needed, and letting the right constraints drive creativity (and boy, does creativity love a constraint) so ideas become a reality at the end of the creative process.

In summary

The common themes of these principles are autonomy and facilitation. This is an echo of the old-school tension of management vs initiative — originally the directives of senior officers vs the initiative of the squad leaders and soldiers on the battlefield. Through management theory prism, it would be the tension between production focused and people focused agendas.

In the case of creativity, it becomes less of a dichotomy and more of an intricate back and forth dialectic process. Almost dance-like.

The more creative people are, the more they demand both these aspects from their leaders. They do not want to follow blindly, but they also expect to feel inspired.

Feeling inspired is more powerful, for truly creative people, than any other sort of authority. If they don’t get inspired, if you don’t facilitate their flow, they’ll go somewhere else.

As creativity becomes more important to the success of your organisation, so is creative leadership. And it’s something the entire organisation needs to get behind.

Originally published in shorter form on Virgin’s Entrepreneur

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