Creative Leadership

What Are the Tyrannies That Global Creative Leaders Must Overcome in Order to Become More Successful?

By David Slocum, April 2017, Berlin

Changing the shared ways of thinking and acting that give direction and momentum to others is one of the great challenges faced by leaders across the world. We typically use the word “culture” to describe this cluster of values, beliefs, and behaviors. For leaders seeking to animate greater creativity in businesses, a particular difficulty is overcoming normative thoughts and actions that prioritize efficiency and control or, more insidiously, formulaic approaches to organization and innovation. The goal of enabling a “creative culture” ordinarily involves surmounting the mental models and collective practices that can have a chilling effect on the generation of creative business solutions.

Tyrannies of thought, expectation, and action often exercise arbitrary and oppressive authority over leaders and business. Some are familiar, and already receive widespread institutional and public attention. They include the encroaching tyranny of belief in data, or the persistent tyrannies of implicit demographic associations that continue, for example, to drive gender inequality in the workplace or sustain damaging preconceptions in interacting with global cultures or markets. The following seven other tyrannies likewise deserve the thoughtful reflection and deliberate action of leaders worldwide.

Tyranny of Bureaucracy

Creative and innovative leadership can be defined in opposition to the more structured, mechanical, and operational management associated with traditional manufacturing economies and occurring in firms throughout global markets. In particular, the fostering of knowledge and creative work is often bluntly contrasted with the pursuit of order, efficiency, and scale. Across industries, the imperative for innovation has only grown
in importance. Yet the purely oppositional view of overthrowing bureaucratic thinking needs to give way to a more nuanced approach of overcoming bureaucracy’s constraints and impediments. Like Linda A. Hill and her colleagues in their essential volume “Collective Genius”, more and more thinkers and practitioners have recognized the necessary coupling of improvisation and structure through effective leadership.

Tyranny of the Average

The inaugural Academic Director of the Berlin School of Creative Leadership, Pierre Casse, introduced this concept to describe the tendency of people to gravitate towards average performance (it is not to be confused with the “tyranny of averages”, which refers to how a statistical mean does not help us to understand probabilities or distribution). To strive for and achieve outstanding performance in ideas, outputs, and performance requires avoiding the risk of complacency — what Casse further refers to as the threat of the “good enough”. A key approach to overcoming this oppressive tendency is better mindfulness of situations and possibilities. For creative leaders every- where, a more consistent awareness of this tendency in themselves and others can contribute to the development and delivery of alternative, disruptive, and finally exceptional solutions to business challenges.

Tyranny of the Creative Halo

Since Edward Thorndike first coined the term nearly a century ago, psychologists have recognized the “halo effect” as a form of cognitive bias in which the specific traits or qualities of an individual influence the perception or evaluation of other characteristics of that same person. Impressions of leaders are particularly susceptible to this form of confirmation bias, in which past successes or performance support the assumption of current or future capability. Moreover, the religious connotation of “halo” has a special resonance for creative workers, who are often perceived as chosen people possessing special abilities of discernment or gifts of imagination. Creative organizations and industries accord enormous prestige and long-term authority to individuals based on specific creative achievements — thereby reinforcing the perception that discrete successes suggest more general capabilities. The challenge for creative leaders is to develop and follow their own beliefs and standards rather than to accept unquestioningly the dictates of convention, often arbitrarily rooted in the past.

Tyranny of Nostalgia

Beyond paying obeisance to individuals’ authority over creative work and decision-making based on their past performances, creative leaders today must confront
the legacy of institutional and industry structures. In publishing, journalism, advertising, and other industries, a great difficulty is overcoming the sentimental embrace of longstanding organizational designs and business models. Digital technologies have been particularly disruptive to these models and require different mindsets and models
of production, customer and client relationships, financial viability, and leadership across borders and markets. As social media analyst Clay Shirky puts it, reflecting on the training of young journalists amidst the decline of print: “The most important fight is between realists and nostalgists.” Change and transformation are always difficult, of course, but sober analysis of — and ongoing adaptability to — actually existing conditions are crucial to leaders today.

Tyranny of the New

Novelty is ordinarily viewed, with utility and sometimes surprise, as one of the defining aspects of creativity. The imperative to think and act differently is an increasingly consistent priority for those seeking to develop distinctive offerings and gain advantage in the marketplace. Yet as Apple designer Jony Ive has observed, “‘Different’ and ‘new’ is relatively easy. Doing something that’s genuinely better is very hard.” Better, not just different, means something that speaks to people and improves their lives. In other words, besides merely contrasting new models, approaches, or products with old or existing ones, a further standard to evaluate novelty is its basis in human nature and specific lives, wherever they are in the world. Producing original ideas and work from what advertising legend Bill Bernbach saw as deeper and unchanging human truths can afford leaders the opportunity to create more than superficially distinctive work.

Tyranny of the Now

While fixating on the new often disregards the past, an obsessive focus on the present can obscure or even preclude clear thinking and action oriented towards the future. Digital technologies, with their sheer and continuous volume of data and feedback, pose a mounting threat. In “Present Shock”, cultural commentator Douglas Rushkoff writes with concern of this condition that “Without a guiding narrative to make sense and create purpose, we end up relying too much on whatever happens to be happening in the moment.” For creative businesses around the world, the more particular risk is an unproductive reliance upon conventional narratives or static values of creativity or authenticity. Consequently, the challenge for leaders is to overcome this reactiveness
to current trends and the urge to retreat to familiarity and stability. Instead, they need to develop a greater willingness to act on creative values and a forward-looking vision. A great example of such leadership is Bob Greenberg at R/GA, which not only recasts its creative offers and solutions for clients but also reinvents its own structure and business model every nine years.

Tyranny of the Vernacular of Creative Pursuits

Shaping all these constraints is the language used to give definition and meaning to businesses, industries, and markets. More than five decades ago, Harvard’s Theodore Levitt wrote “Creativity Is Not Enough”, one of the most famous articles in the history of marketing management. Today, his title suggests a different caution about the very words used by self-professed or would-be creatives or creative leaders. The repetitive deployment of a consistent vernacular of creative pursuits — of “original thinking” and “business solutions”, “failure” and “learning”, “experimentation” and “risk-taking” — can encourage self-reinforcing generic communications rather than deeper engagement with specific situations. Largely originating in the tech startup context of Silicon Valley, this vernacular has gone global across industries, and arguably limits, rather than unleashes, creative value. Saying “creativity” or “innovation” is not enough, in other words, to convey a particular vision, priority, or strategy and, without elaboration, risks emptying those words of meaning.

Creative leadership is about continually sensing and adapting to situations, reframing problems and challenges, and developing and delivering alternative solutions to generate value and business benefits. That practice includes recognizing and engaging orthodoxies of thought and action, not in order to reject them automatically, but to help forge a better future. Even as creative leaders everywhere must consistently revisit the decisions, planning, and strategies of the past, they must also engage with and often move beyond legacy habits of mind, heart, and behavior that can inhibit the creative exploration and realization of their business goals. ■

David Slocum

Dr. David Slocum is the Faculty Director of the Executive MBA in Creative Leadership at the Berlin School of Creative Leadership. David Slocum designs and teaches degree and executive training programs, and is a certified executive coach, with a focus on leadership and organization of the creative and media industries.

His publications have examined a range of cultural, historical, and industry issues in media and entertainment. Slocum was educated at the University of Michigan, Harvard University, and New York University, where he earned a Ph.D. studying sociology and media.