Some are born leaders, some achieve leadership, and some have leadership thrust upon them.
You probably didn’t choose a creative career so that you could become a leader. You wanted to do the hands-on creative stuff. But at some point you may find that to keep moving onward and upward, you need to take on responsibility for leading others.
And this is a big challenge, since leading creative people is notoriously difficult. But moving into leadership also contains a creative opportunity, if you’re alert to it.
So in this week’s lesson I’m going to describe both the challenge and opportunity, and give you some practical tips on how to get started.
Leading creative people is hard for two reasons.
Firstly, creative people are very independent-minded. Most of them don’t like being told what to do, so they’re not keen on being managed. Hence the expression ‘herding cats’. And your job is to herd the cats. Lucky you.
And they’re not just being prima donnas. As Dan Pink has pointed out, autonomy (freedom of thought and action) is highly correlated with creativity. If you micromanage creativity, you kill it.
Secondly, creativity is inherently unpredictable and risky. And as a leader or manager you’re under pressure to minimize risks and deliver predictable results. Lucky you, again.
So if you are to succeed, you will need to find a way of allowing people a certain amount of creative freedom while still maintaining control of the outcome, and of tolerating risk without letting it get out of hand. Not an easy balancing act.
When we think of creativity, we think of people doing the hands-on execution or performance: the artists, designers, writers, dancers, musicians and so on.
But there’s another type of creativity, that is more about directing, coordinating and facilitating others’ efforts. This is the creativity of the film director, the conductor, the creative director, the record producer, the entrepreneur. And the leader.
When you’re facilitating, you don’t get to do the fine detail, and you often don’t see much of the limelight. But you do get to shape the big picture. Instead of choosing the fonts or adjusting the kerning, you get to decide whether you’re producing a poster, a newspaper ad or a Super Bowl commercial.
So if you really want to work on a big canvas, leadership gives you the chance.
In case you’re wondering whether you have leadership qualities, I can assure you, you do. In spite of my misquotation of Shakespeare, leaders are made and not born. Or as Seth Godin puts it:
People don’t become leaders because they have charisma; people get charisma because they’re leaders.
(Seth Godin, Tribes)
And whether or not you take on formal leadership responsibility, sooner or later, you need to become a leader. Remember the Guru from Lesson 8?
So the bad news is, leading creative people is difficult. The good news is, it’s a creative opportunity. But how do you do it?
Six types of leadership
Let’s start with the big picture. According to research by Daniel Goleman and his colleagues, there are six basic leadership styles:
- Coercive – demanding compliance
- Authoritative – mobilizing people towards a vision
- Affiliative – building relationships and promoting harmony
- Democratic – promoting consensus through participation
- Pacesetting – setting high standards by example and demanding the same of others
- Coaching – delegating responsibility and developing people for success
Analysing the effectiveness of the different styles, they found that the one that had the most galvanising effect on employees was the authoritative style. So it’s worth quoting Goleman’s description of this style:
The authoritative leader is a visionary – he motivates people by making clear to them how their work fits into a larger vision for the organization. People who work for such leaders understand that what they do matters and why.
(Daniel Goleman, ‘Leadership that Gets Results’)
The two styles that had a negative effect on culture and workplace performance were the coercive and pacesetting styles. It’s fairly easy to see why coercing people doesn’t work — especially independent-minded creatives — but it’s worth considering why the pacesetting style is a bad idea.
Pacesetters lead by example, like leading marathon runners who set the pace for the following pack. This style is very common in the creative industries, where, for example the best creative gets promoted to creative director, and measures others by his or her (but usually his) high standards. Which on the surface, sounds like a good idea.
In fact, the pacesetting style destroys climate [morale]. Many employees feel overwhelmed by the pacesetter’s demands for excellence, and their morale drops. Guidelines for working may he clear in the leader’s head, but she does not state them clearly… Work becomes not a matter of doing one’s best along a clear course so much as second-guessing what the leader wants.
Pacesetting is a form of egomania. Pacesetters haven’t grasped the fact that leading and developing others is a skill set of its own, very different to technical or creative mastery. Pacesetting can work if your goal is to produce cookie-cutter replicas of yourself, and to weed out the deviants. But if you want to develop people with diverse personalities and talents, and to harness them in pursuit of a common vision, it’s a disaster.
So authoritative leadership is the most effective kind, and coercion and pacesetting are to be avoided. But Goleman came to another interesting conclusion: the most neglected style of leadership is the Coaching style.
Coaching leaders help employees identify their unique strengths and weaknesses and tie them to their personal and career aspirations. They encourage employees to establish long-term development goals and help them conceptualize a plan for attaining them. They make agreements with their employees about their role and responsibilities in enacting development plans, and they give plentiful instruction and feedback.
Coaching leaders resolve the tension between freedom and control, risk and creativity, by agreeing goals with their team members, but letting them reach them in their own way; and by allowing people to fail (within reason) but helping them learn from their experience in order to continually improve.
Having trained hundreds of managers in the coaching style of management, I can certainly relate to Goleman’s description of the reason why leaders neglect coaching — and the positive benefits it can have, for them as well as their team members:
Of the six styles, our research found that the coaching style is used least often. Many leaders told us they don’t have the time in this high-pressure economy for the slow and tedious work of teaching people and helping them grow. But after a first session, it takes little or no extra time. Leaders who ignore this style are passing up a powerful tool: its impact on climate and performance are markedly positive.
So if you really want to achieve great things as a leader, start by inspiring people with your vision then follow through by helping them learn, develop and do what it takes to achieve the goal. Here are some tools to help you do this in practice.
The leader’s toolkit
For authoritative leadership, it’s essential that you have a vision you passionately believe in. If not, how can you expect to inspire others? If you’re struggling with this, you may like to revisit Lesson 1, and ask yourself how stepping up into a leadership role helps you achieve your creative and professional ambitions.
Once you have a vision, you need to articulate it in an inspiring way, not just to individuals but to the group. The public speaking skills covered in Lesson 24 will help you do this. And you’ll need to understand how to utilise the four most powerful types of motivation — see my ebook How to Motivate Creative People (Including Yourself).
For day-to-day communication with your team, these fundamental coaching skills will help you do the job effectively:
Coaching is a goal-focused approach, so it’s essential to agree clear, well-defined and emotionally engaging goals from your team members. A good framework for goal-setting is SMART:
- Specific – What exactly do you want to achieve?
- Measurable – How will you know you have achieved it?
- Attractive – What’s the benefit it for everyone involved?
- Realistic – What makes you think you can achieve it?
- Timed – What’s the deadline? And the schedule?
As well as formal goal-setting, you should get into the habit of thinking and asking questions with a goal-focused mindset, in everyday conversation. For example, “How does doing that get you closer to your goal?” helps someone to evaluate whether what she is doing will help or hinder her.
Another common habit of a good coach is reframing problems as goals – e.g. if a coachee talks about the problems he his having with a ‘difficult’ colleague, the coach might ask “What needs to happen for you to have a workable relationship with this person?”.
We hear a lot about the importance of listening, but looking is often (ahem) overlooked. I often say to trainee coaches “The answer is right in front of you”. People’s body language tells you a huge amount about their emotional state, yet it’s so easy to miss it if you are focused on your own agenda.
This is often referred to as ‘active listening’ to emphasise the difference between passively taking in what the other person is saying and actively engaging with them and showing that you are giving them your undivided attention. This involves putting your own concerns and ideas ‘in a box’ while you listen.
By listening intently to someone else, you send a powerful double message: firstly, that you are there to support them in whatever they are doing; secondly, that you are paying attention and expect them to follow through on what they say.
Empathy develops naturally out of looking and listening. If you do this attentively, you can start to ‘get a feeling’ for the other person’s emotional state. (Scientists have linked this phenomenon to mirror neurons.) This can help you ‘tune in’ to emotions and thoughts of which they are not fully aware. E.g. “I’m starting to feel quite angry when I hear you talk about what your boss said to you – was that how you felt?”.
At the heart of coaching is a willingness to put aside your own ideas about the ‘best/right/obvious way’ to do something, and to ask a question to elicit someone else’s ideas. This can be challenging for brilliantly creative people (like you), as you usually have plenty of ideas of your own. But it’s worth doing for three reasons:
- Directing attention – questions are a powerful way of influencing people without telling them what to do. They prompt the coachee to look for a new idea or solution in a particular area.
- Eliciting new ideas – however ‘obvious’ the answer may seem to the coach, it’s amazing how often the other person will come up with several different and often better alternatives. Unless you ask the question, you risk leaving the coachee’s creativity untapped.
- Fostering commitment – there’s a huge difference between doing something because someone has told you to, and doing something that you have dreamt up yourself. Even if a team member comes up with the same idea as you, the fact that she has thought it through herself means she will have a much greater sense of ownership and commitment when putting it into practice.
The key to delivering effective coaching feedback is that it is observational and non-judgmental. If you provide clear, specific feedback about someone’s actions and their consequences, then they will often be perfectly capable of evaluating their performance for themselves
For really challenging situations, have another look at Lesson 23 on Dealing with Difficult People.
For more advice on using the coaching style of leadership, feel free to download my ebook Creative Management for Creative Teams.
The following episodes of The 21st Century Creative Podcast touch on the themes of today’s lesson:
Written by me, unless otherwise indicated
How to Motivate Creative People (Including Yourself) – my free ebook.
Creative Management for Creative Teams – another free ebook.
Herding Tigers: Be the Leader That Creative People Need by Todd Henry
The Coaching Habit: Say Less, Ask More & Change the Way You Lead Forever by Michael Bungay Stanier
Tribes: We Need You to Lead Us by Seth Godin
Tantrums and Talent: How to Get the Best From Creative People – by Winston Fletcher, a veteran ad man, featuring contributions by David Puttnam, Alan McGhee, Michael Grade and Wally Ollins.
Tune in next time …
… for the final instalment of The 21st Century Creative.
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