Creativity can be a block to the top

2010

At a time when organisations are crying out for creative leadership more than ever before, new research from Cornell University has found that being creative can actually block your chances of reaching the top.

Creativity might be a trait many CEOs say is essential for senior leadership, but it seems that widely-held perceptions of "creative people" and "effective leaders" often clash. Creative people are viewed as risky and unpredictable, while leaders are expected to reduce uncertainty and uphold the norms of the group.

"Our three studies show that when people voice creative ideas, they are viewed by others as having less leadership potential," said Jack Goncalo, assistant professor of organizational behaviour in Cornell's ILR School.

In other words, he added, creative people are getting filtered out on their way to the top. While people claim they want creativity, when given the opportunity, they actually preserve the status quo by sticking with unoriginal thinkers.

As Edward de Bono pointed out here on management Issues earlier this year, the problem leaders have with creativity is two-fold. If you yourself have done very well with the existing modes of thinking, why should you encourage others to learn further modes? But if you live in innocent ignorance of the other modes of thinking, how can you be anything but complacent about thinking?

In troubled times, however, this complacency and tendency towards group-think can be fatal. Today's CEOs must navigate a sea of VUCA - volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity. Yet unoriginal thinkers – that means most CEOs – are always looking to reduce volatility and increase predictability. They lack the creativity to look at things in a different way and see problems as opportunities, skills that are more important now than ever before.

As Goncalo points out, this might help explain why many of the 1,500 leaders surveyed in 2010 by IBM's Institute for Business Value doubted their abilities to lead through complex times.

Perhaps promoted for their unspoken promises to preserve the status quo, Goncalo suggests, leaders are often expected to change the status quo when they arrive at the top – an uncanny mismatch that was previously unidentified and which leaves a leadership void at the very point at which new insights and approaches are so desperately required.