Creativity – Desired or Unappreciated Trait of Today’s Leaders

by:  Tom Pearce, iLead Consulting & Training, CEO

A couple of years ago, top management from one of my major clients made an unannounced visit to my leadership development class I was facilitating for their organization. The topic of discussion that afternoon was developing creative skills.

The immediate response from this group of executives was, “What is this ##$%?” According to this group of visitors to the class, we might as well have been burning incense and singing Kum-Ba-Yah.

Why did these administrators react this way? Simply stated, corporations are looking for bottom-line solutions that are useful, cost effective and have immediate impact to the organization. So why is creativity viewed in such a negative light and considered by some as a trait not worth the investment?

In the March 2011 issue of the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, Wharton management professor, Jennifer Mueller and co-authors Jack A. Goncalo of Cornell and Dishan Kamdar of ISB published a study examining how creative people were viewed by their colleagues. In their findings, “creative” people were not viewed as leaders.

According to the research, people showing imagination were seen as dreamers because their ideas have not been proven. Leaders, according to the findings, are expected to maintain order and keep the company moving forward.

Yet in a recent survey of 1,500 CEOs by IBM’s Institute for Business Value, creativity was named the single most important attribute for success in leading large corporations in the future. This result does not surprise Mueller:

“Those individuals know how to recognize good ideas, are open to them and know how to get creative ideas through the company. Selecting creative leaders is the critical challenge organizations face.”

To further illustrate this point, compare and contrast the differences between Hewett-Packard and Apple.

In Adam Hartung’s article in the August 25, 2011 issue of Forbes, “Why Leo Apotheker is No Steve Jobs – Too Bad for HP,” it is very apparent that HP forgot about the importance of innovation and developing creative leaders. In the past, HP was a leader in patent applications, new product launches and being first with products engineers needed and wanted.

Then in 1999, HP hired Carly Fiorina from AT&T as the new CEO and she became the first CEO to utilize old-fashioned, industrial ideas by cutting “R&D and new product development in favor of seeking market share with largely undifferentiated products.” The company shifted from less innovation to spending large amounts of money to produce copy-cat products.

Compare to Steve Jobs’ actions at the same time. Per Hartung, Jobs “rapidly sought out new technologies, such as MP3, which could be used to fulfill the trend for ease of use and mobility and launched organic products that were differentiated from competitors such as Dell, HP and Sony.” Apple continues to be the innovator of new products meeting the needs of the public or better yet, creating technology that eliminates the demand for other products.

Conversely, HP purchased Palm around the same time Apple introduced the iPhone. Notwithstanding, the iPad revolutionized the way we access the Internet by making it more portable and the need to carry a laptop unnecessary. As Hartung points out, “while the latest HP CEO keeps doing acquisitions and reshuffling assets seeking a ‘transformation,’ Steve Jobs kept the Apple team focused on meeting emerging market needs.”

So the question remains, should we rethink the importance of creativity in our leaders? Just ask Apple.

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Tom Pearce