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Creative Intelligence, Leadership, and the Challenge of the Future

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It is creative leaders and employees who introduce positive change and make quantum leaps forward in creating new products and processes. Alan Rowe explains how and why creativity should be encouraged within organizations.

For those who live in the past, there is no future. “If you take no part in the design of your future, it will be designed for you by others.”

Edward de Bono

Drivers of the Future

The environment in which we live is changing rapidly and in unpredictable ways. Individuals who are creative are able to bring about change and visualize future opportunities. Creative leaders are a critical resource needed to find answers to difficult problems. They are the ones who can navigate the future. They are able to embrace ambiguity and reframe problems as opportunities. They have competencies that include how to read and understand the environment, build alliances, recognize the importance of social responsibility, manage complexity, use information technology, and encourage creativity. Increasingly, leaders are using a proactive stance in taking their organizations into uncharted territory.

Leaders are willing to confront adversity, but in no situation should they be the end of the line. They must continuously interact with their constituencies, whether in politics, production, education, religion, and so on. Each of these groups has its own opinion about what is desirable. They influence what a leader can do. Like a tightrope acrobat, the leader balances on a slender wire, where any misstep can result in disaster. Effective leaders are willing to take risks, think outside the box, and recognize that empowerment provides a sense of ownership to stakeholders that helps to assure proposed changes will be accepted.

An insightful view of leadership is found in The Contrarian's Guide to Leadership, a book co-authored by Dr. Stephen Sample, President of the University of Southern California, and Distinguished Professor Warren Bennis. They discuss the need to open vistas not previously explored or accepted. Contrarian leaders do not follow the pack. They believe in their own ideas of what is best. However, they listen openly and are responsive to new ideas, and are willing to constantly adjust their position in response to impending change. They also know the value of creative contributions from employees. A single innovation was what led to Intel's microprocessor. This is the kind of quantum jump that can be achieved by motivated employees.

Warren Bennis, a leader in the field of leadership, has published numerous books and articles on the subject. He conducted a research study with Robert Thomas in which they found that extraordinary leaders are the ones who have the skills needed to conquer adversity and emerge stronger because of it. Their research also showed that great leaders have the ability to create a sense of inclusion, where people share meaning with one another. These leaders have a distinct ability to communicate with a compelling voice that inspires a strong sense of values. Strong leaders are able to transcend adversity and reinvent themselves. They learn from their ordeals and have the perseverance to carry on even under adversity. Other factors that describe great leaders include knowing how to interact with people to gain commitment and having the ability to recognize what is important to members of an organization that make them feel a sense of excitement where all want to join in.

Leaders understand that creative ideas require recognition for those who are willing to stick their necks out. The difference between creative and non-creative people often depends on their willingness to take risks. Inventors such as Thomas Edison immersed themselves in their work and carried out hundreds of unsuccessful experiments before finding ones that worked. Individuals considered geniuses also turned out to be very hard workers, often producing a high volume of work. What these geniuses had in common was a deep understanding of their area of expertise, along with an ability to recognize anomalies that most people miss. They also were highly motivated and able to concentrate on problems or ideas for long periods of time.

Leaders who focus on encouraging and supporting their organizations to achieve new products and ideas will be the ones who will be out in front. Richard Lewis, founder and past CEO of Accountants Overload, balanced his inspirational style with his imaginative style. He was described by his employees as warmly enthusiastic, imaginative, and as having a flair for problem-solving. He constantly looked for ways to encourage and reward people. Lewis decided to make every employee a manager. With his senior management team, he developed what he termed “Chairman's Projects.” He placed employees in leadership roles as project managers even though they had no prior experience in those positions. With his many ideas and a genuine desire to encourage his employees to be creative, he produced an environment in which innovation was a day-to-day activity. Organizations that have a strong interest in promoting creativity are the ones that become more competitive.

Successful leaders take moribund companies and turn them around so that they become viable, productive entities. Examples include Lou Gerstner at IBM, Lee Iacocca at Chrysler, and Jack Welch at GE. All exuded confidence, enthusiasm, and energy, and relied on a vision that could bring about desired change. Charisma is obviously a desirable trait in a leader, but by itself, it is not sufficient to assure desired outcomes. Studies have shown that, at best, all a leader can achieve is perhaps a 25–30% improvement after taking into account the impact of industry and economic factors. The question then is how does a strong, charismatic leader recognize the importance of bringing the organization along with his or her vision. Jack Welch at GE was willing to “lay waste” to parts of the company so that the remaining units would have a greater chance of success. This assured that the least profitable units would not encumber the units that would move GE ahead.

Responding to fierce global competition, Jack Welch focused GE's efforts in areas where he felt the company could be number one or two in the world, and gave up on all other divisions of the company. He introduced an employee “Workout Program” that used a form of town meeting, where employees could share ideas and make suggestions. In turn, managers were required to make decisions on the spot. In this kind of open environment, GE was able to correct many of its problems in a timely fashion.

Other companies have also set up informal work systems and networks for generating and sharing ideas. This approach fosters teamwork, which can contribute to huge dividends. Team members not only learn from each other, but also are able to generate better ideas together than they could separately. An important benefit of the team approach is that when a member leaves, his or her knowledge does not leave as well. An additional benefit of investing in team members is to help them increase their knowledge so they are encouraged to stay with the company.

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