Creativity-the key ingredient for today’s leaders?

My last blog focused on the underrated trait of ‘raw kahunas’ or bravery in our leaders today. Today, I want to focus on what I perceive to be another kindred quality in short supply these days: creativity. I think most of us in business, (certainly those with children who are missing out on creative courses in school such as drama, art, music, etc.) realize that our creative juices are not being taught, tapped, or tested in recent years. Not to say that creativity is absent – that would be absurd – just look to the few obvious innovators of recent days from whom we can learn:

  • Steve Jobs with the market leading innovation of the iPhone,
  • Larry Page and Sergey Brin, founders of Google, who developed the innovative search technology that provides relevant answers which went on to become the world’s largest search engine
  • Jeff Bezos, founder and CEO of, who made the world’s largest online bookstore and the most popular online retail site
  • Pierre Omidyar, founder and chairman of eBay, who changed the face of Internet commerce in 1995 when he launched eBay which went on to become the world’s largest marketplace
  • Michael Dell, founder and chairman of Dell, who always thought big, and made Dell the number one computer company, and is now on a mission to connect the next billion people all over the world.
  • How about Steve Ballmer, CEO, and Bill Gates, founder and chairman of Microsoft, who made Microsoft the world’s largest software company?
  • However, I began to wonder about the common characteristics of those who innovate and are creative. What can we learn from these creative forces from our past – and of the present? What can we do, in our own lives and businesses, to turn up the gas on creativity within ourselves and amongst our teams?

    Two baselines to consider:

    1. Creative leaders buck the system.

    As Sam Walton, founder of Wal-Mart, once said:I have always been driven to buck the system, to innovate, to take things beyond where they’ve been.”

    Talk about a kindred cousin to bravery….it takes courage to buck the status quo – on many levels: politically, operationally, technically, culturally.  We have to stretch, pull, and push – often our team, our constituents, and our stakeholders – and sometimes even our customers and clients. People get accustomed to ‘what they like and when they are comfortable.’ Moving away from ‘how it has always been’ can be a sales job of the first order.

    Think about when the personal computer first came into being…do you remember the naysayers? Think about when the internet was becoming more and more pervasive and people questioned the idea of buying/selling/banking online?  These were not easy sales in the early days. Yes, there was niche market momentum from the thought leaders of the industry; yet, I remember the stodgy old school from many Fortune 50-100 companies hesitant to jump on board.

    In a nutshell, “bucking the system” equates to:

    • having the vision of where they want to go,
    • why they need to go,
    • how they are going to get there,
    • the emotional energy to get the troops to want to go with them
    • And having the courage to drive the bus to the final destination!

    2. Creative leaders don’t buck the system for the sake of bucking the system.

    This is a cardinal rule for creative leaders. Creative leaders are great at generating new ideas which are game-changing and bring value to the consumer. They are curious in experimenting with new ideas – testing the waters to see which one’s stick. Brainstorming is standard operating procedure and rewarded.  Risk taking is valued and encouraged.

    They keep the ideas coming, yet they don’t change the game for the sake of changing the game.

    They are ruthless in their testing, qualifying, and ‘winnowing dow’ ideas, products, concepts and approaches. The Chief Concept Officer of Burger King has publicly stated that ‘coming up with fast food ideas is not the greatest challenge, it is winnowing them down to those that have sticking power.’ They test with consumers and have in-depth screening processes. They don’t launch a new creative product or approach just based on someone’s love of the idea or their gut feel for the market.  They always ground their decisions with the ultimate question: for the sake of what or whom are we bucking the system?

    With this is our baseline, what can we do to stir up the creative juices in our respective organizations?

    A. Always keep the customer (or client) first.

    Have you ever come across a new book or a new product and said: “Gosh, that is nothing, why didn’t I think of that?” And yet, this product or book is selling like wildfire! (think the Chicken Soup for the Soul books, or washed/cut lettuce in a bag, or even bottled water). Each one of those products was after a target market and they established a brand/marketing approach to entice those consumers. Billions of dollars were spent reaching the market, demographics, packaging, etc.; and yet, my point is this: it all starts with a need  or a void the customer may or may not know they have or we create the need (think bottled water, again). We don’t have to have an enormous marketing research arm to tap into every need in the world.

    I believe each of us has the capacity to tap into that creative process.

    If we pay attention and observe our own needs, the needs of our family and friends, and certainly of our clients – we have the potential to uncover how we can creatively address the needs or wants of others.

    Let me share one salient example:

    The 93 year old San Francisco Symphony was struggling a few years ago with lack luster sales, an extremely hierarchical structure where the musicians were the ‘tail of the dog’ and the conductor was faced with a collection of creative musicians being stifled by the bureaucratic structure. You can read about the transformation in great detail in the Wharton business school review (; yet the aspect of the story which captured my attention was this:

    After Michael Tilton Thomas (the Executive Director) had implemented a number of changes such as a new chamber music series, and establishing a musical advisory committee made up of loyal patrons; an even riskier venture presented itself the following year. A long-time San Francisco Symphony (SFS) supporter heard the orchestra perform a symphony by Mahler, and encouraged the SFS to consider recording the work, even to the point of saying he would help fund it. Traditional recording companies had discouraged such recordings, noting that the market was already glutted with Mahler recordings. “There was no business case for this undertaking, but the board swallowed hard and agreed to take the risk. This was chutzpah at its best,” said the SFS Board President, John Goldman. “It meant turning ourselves into a recording company and partnering to get the expertise we didn’t have.” What the board and administration expected was sales of up to 10,000 units per recording, a degree of notoriety — and doing it “without killing the organization financially. Keep in mind that, in this case, the creative idea came from outside the organization. Those of us who had been working within the orchestra world believed what the recording companies were telling us — that there was no market for this music.” The recording companies were wrong. The SFS Mahler recording project won two Grammy awards and achieved sales of nearly 20,000 units per recording — when sales of 5,000 is considered a bestseller in the classical music world. Amazing what listening to what our customers WANT (versus what we want them to want) can achieve! Furthermore, the SFS is now well known around the country for its’ innovative approaches, their encouragement and recognition for taking risks, and they are a magnet for world-renowned musicians and conductors.

    B. Capture the idea.

    Some of my best ideas come at the oddest times.  Invariably, I am driving or am listening to someone give a presentation or am walking early in the morning. Often, I become my own ‘naysayer’, and disqualify these ideas because I think they are too light or whimsical or non-proven.  Sure, I would venture that about 90% of these ideas are indeed light and silly at a second glance; yet it is the 10% that I am after!

    Recently, I read and article about Coco Chanel in Newsweek which triggered me to research more about her and her creative spirit.  Frankly, I needed a little inspiration.

    For those unfamiliar (my male readers, perhaps):  Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel may very well be the most influential and innovative fashion designer to date. As Christian Dior put it, “With a black pullover and ten rows of pearls she revolutionized fashion”. Not only is Chanel known for her little black dress and her No 5 fragrance, but also her classic and timeless suits, shoes, purses and jewelry. Her designs helped define women’s fashion. What was her creative spark?

    Her style evolved out of necessity and defiance. She couldn’t afford the fashionable clothes of the period — so she rejected them and made her own, using everyday male attire which she found around the racetrack where she was trying to climb her first social ladder.  It’s not by accident that she became associated with the modern artistic movement of the time that included Picasso, Stravinsky and Cocteau. Like these artists, she was determined to break the old formulas and invent a way of expressing herself. Who could have predicted she would become this creative icon, coming from a childhood of being raised by the nuns in the Aubazine orphanage after her mother died and her father ran off.

    Her creativity was a direct result of her life’s experiences. Perhaps necessity and desire  are indeed the mother of invention. We just need to pay attention and ‘be in life’ to capture the idea and the spark. C. So what, now what?

    Just look at the successful companies and leaders from our past and in the world today, from Henry Ford to Jeff Bezos to Steve Jobs, they changed the game and ‘bucked the system’ with new creations. How can we ‘get some of that?’ A few tips to consider, which are certainly not rocket science, yet in my experience as an executive coach, I believe may help boost those creative juices:

    • Make brainstorming a regular practice in every leadership meeting you have – to solve one nagging issue in your organization. Keep it fun. Create energy around the practice. Think completely outside the box.
    • Surround yourself with people completely different from you – personally and professionally. Push the boundary. Play outside your conventional lines. Foster open debate and conversation. Open up to new ways of looking at things… Kahil Gibran said: “Say not I have found the truth, but rather, I have found a truth.”
    • Bring music and art into your culture. Seriously. Play Bach or U2 or Coldplay – anything to get your creative brain working while you prepare to work.
    • Take a walk. Clear your head. Listen to the birds, feel the wind and smell the grass. This not only gets those endorphins working; your senses become alive. Please note: I did not suggest having your Ipod or cell phone with you – get into life … that is where the creative juices flow.
    • Read everything.  Silly books, non-fiction books, website fodder, billboards. It is funny, when I have read where our greatest entrepreneurs got their first hit for a winning idea – it is seldom from hard core material. Often it’s from the whimsical side of life. There is a great book I recommend: Women Create! A Seriously Whimsical Celebration of the Creative Feminine. Hilda offers a fabulously fun and often irrevrant perspective on creativity!
    • Relax. Take a hot bath and have a glass of wine. Guys step into a steam or hot shower. Turn off for a while. Let your mind rest.
    • Meditate and pray. This may be a tough one for many. Yet, what I know for sure is when we get in touch with a higher power – the clarity is indescribable and not negotiable.

    These tips are not new – there are more extensive lists on every self-help book counter! Nor are they the ‘cure all’ for our collective creativity. Yet, I know for sure they are a step in the right direction.

    So to summarize: not every idea or buck the system approach should be pursued. And, not every creative thought has merit.  (Think New Coke for one ‘classic’ example).

    My point is this: without creativity and innovation our world economy will suffer, our country, and our companies will stall, lose value and competitive differentiation. With creativity, our companies will have new approaches, products, marketing strategies, new horizons for our children and children’s children to discover, and new energy around the sheer joy of creating!

    As leaders emerging from this economic recession, we have the opportunity to act less as commanders of a sinking ship and more as stimulators and facilitators of new ideas and approaches. So, lets’ be creative! Let’s color outside those lines – and look through new lenses to solve real problems, and make a difference in our organizations, our country, and in our lives.