Why Our Leaders Aren't More Creative (And What to Do About It)

The surprising secret of innovation

Posted Apr 04, 2011

We are in love with the word “Eureka,” and for good reason. Creativity is magic: the ability to create something out of nothing, to make connections that others don’t see. Everyone wants to be more creative. Everyone wants to work for, or invest in, the world’s most creative companies.

Especially today. CEOs rank creativity as the most important leadership skill for successful organizations of the future, according to a survey last year by IBM’s Institute for Business Value.

Yet a brand new study out of the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania suggests that the people who show true creativity – those whose ideas are not only useful but also original – are rarely seen as leaders. In the study, researchers asked employees at a multinational company in India to rate their colleagues’ creativity and leadership potential. They asked college kids to do the same thing with their classmates. In both cases, the most creative people were not perceived as leaders.

Jennifer Mueller, assistant professor of management at Wharton and lead author of the study, speculates that out-of-the-box thinkers tend not to do the things that traditional leaders do: set goals, maintain the status quo, exude certainty. “I walk into a meeting and someone voices a creative idea,” she told CNN, “and someone else rolls their eyes and says ‘that’s the creative over there.’ Yet if you were to say, ‘Do you want a creative leader?’ They would say, ‘Of course!’.” 

I suspect that another reason for the creativity gap in the leadership ranks is that many creative thinkers are introverts. Studies suggest that true creativity requires solitude – and that the majority of spectacularly creative people are introverts, or at least comfortable with spending large chunks of time alone. (I go into a lot of depth on this in my forthcoming book.)

And people who like to spend time alone are decidedly at odds with today’s team-based organizational culture. Introverts are much less likely than extroverts to be groomed for leadership positions, according to management research.

If we’re really serious about a future of “innovation” – if this isn’t just a feel-good buzzword – then we need to come up with – ahem – creative solutions to this mismatch. One idea is to think hard about what leaders really do. Today’s leaders need to have a dizzying variety of skills. They need to perform the traditional tasks, like making speeches, rallying troops, and setting goals. But in today’s world, they also need to feel in their bones what innovation means.

If the same person can’t do all these things at once – and let’s face it: how many people are both social and solitary, goal-oriented and wildly original? -- we should be thinking more about leadership-sharing, where two people divide leadership tasks according to their natural strengths and talents.

If you know of any examples of this model, I’d love to hear about them!


If you like this blog, you might like to pre-order my forthcoming book, QUIET: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking.

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