Creativity and Leadership – Insights from East and West - International Academy for Deep Transformation

Creativity and Leadership – Insights from East and West

In today’s competitive environment, two important qualities are generally in short supply: creativity and leadership. Yet, organizations that are more creative in their approach to business challenges enjoy an important edge. Even small companies with the vision and leadership to blaze new trails at the right time can quickly become global giants. Companies, such as Microsoft or Apple, were small business that became household names in just a few years due to a combination of creativity and leadership. Yet that combination of creativity and leadership is quite rare. Need it be so?

Some people say that ‘leaders are born, not made’, while creativity, too, is often considered a birthright for the happy few. Yet, everyone has the potential for creativity and the most surprising people can emerge as leaders at the right moment. No-one would necessarily have predicted that Lech Walesa would become an important Polish leader known throughout the world, but his willingness to heed the call of the moment drew forth exceptional qualities of leadership. Just as everyone is in some ways creative, so everyone is in some ways a leader.


Creativity and Leadership in Bali

Within Balinese culture creativity is highly valued. The creation of things of beauty is a part of many people’s daily life, whether they work in the fields or run a home. Builders are frequently often musicians or carvers. Many children and adults are adept dancers, both masters of classic forms and also clever improvisers. Ordinary men and woman regularly create exquisite offerings for the many ceremonies that are held.

These ceremonies, too, are organized, often, on a large scale involving many families or whole communities with a minimum of fuss and a general comfortable efficiency that gets everything done on time. Leadership is exercised loosely by a committee that brings together people with organizing talents and skills for the macro management of the events. But the steering group will generally emerge in a natural way from among those able and willing to assume responsibility at the time.

Central planning and administration is minimalist, with all the people involved forming a flexible and creative self-organizing system, in which sub-groups of like-minded and like-talented people get together in a rather spontaneous way to take care of what needs to be taken care of – groups of woman preparing offerings and cakes, men handling the heavier cooking, other people welcoming and receiving visitors, and so on.  Newcomers are absorbed into the appropriate group, with older and more experienced people passing on their knowledge and skills to those who do not know so much.

In the Balinese way of handling these events, a lot of the leadership is dispersed. What happens illustrates the importance of recognizing that leadership is not only the function of the nominal leader, but is ideally present throughout the whole system. People are firstly responsible for leading themselves. That is to say, they naturally fulfil their individual roles and responsibilities without needing a lot of management and co-ordination. Secondly, each sub-group and team fulfils its tasks and functions as needed.

Among the factors supporting the flourishing of creativity and self-organizing systems in Bali are some important cultural presuppositions. Fundamentally, the Balinese have a deep belief in the underlying unity of life. All things partake of life, including rocks and stones. And yet, within this unity a subtle structure supports life in all its varied aspects, whether benign or tumultuous. As humans, we find ourselves, midway between the natural world, through our physical body and higher sources of inspiration and guidance. The concept of trihita karana encourages people to find a place for, and balance the needs of, Mind, Body, and Spirit, for Man, Nature, and the Divine. Every Balinese recognizes that there is a small world (buana alit) comprising his or her own personal being and a wider world (buana agung) containing the small world. The Micro and Macro levels of creation are reflected in each other, influence each other reciprocally, and function best when they are in harmony with one another. Much of Balinese religious and social life is geared to acknowledging and supporting this harmony. People are generally sensitive to what supports and disturbs balance.

Such thinking encourages people to think holistically, to consider the larger picture, and to have a participative relationship with the creative process of life itself.


Empowerment and Creativity

Many major companies in recent years have sought to develop the kind of dispersed leadership that is observable in Balinese social life, aiming for flatter organizations in which creative cross-functional teams form to assume responsibility for handling particular projects quickly and efficiently. The devolution of leadership is intended to empower people so that their natural creativity, so often stifled by traditional hierarchical structures, is unleashed.

There is an implicit recognition that creativity and leadership are intimately linked. The system and style of leadership in place will have an important effect on the degree of creativity displayed within a system. Creativity needs a large measure of freedom in which to flourish. When Natalie Rogers, daughter of the late Carl Rogers, founder of Person Centred Expressive Therapy, brought her system of Person Centred Expressive Therapy to Russia, in the final years of the former Soviet Union, she was highly conscious that in the then climate, simply stimulating free acts of spontaneous expression ‘the creative connection’, the sequenced use of the expressive arts, such as movement, drawing, creative writing and so, was a revolutionary act. Rigid authoritarianism and creativity are generally mutually exclusive.

Naturally, of course, excessive freedom is also inimical to creativity. The word ‘anarchy’, from Greek roots meaning ‘without government’ has come to mean the breakdown of order into destructive chaos. Creativity flourishes most where there is a fine balance between freedom and control. An important question, then, for leaders wishing to nurture creativity in the systems they impact is how to find and sustain that optimal balance. For that, leaders themselves need to be highly creative.


Three Levels of Creative Development

We may discern three levels of creative development in leaders. At the simplest level, we find that the leader can apply creative problem-solving methods or techniques to particular problems. Such methods may be formally coded as such. For instance, the leader may chair a ‘brainstorming’ session to generate ideas concerning a current issue. Or he or she may draw on more informal approaches to problems elaborated from trial and error during childhood, or while solving educational or work challenges.

At the next level, the leader’s style or way of working strikes people as generally creative or displaying flair. The leader, not only can apply and display creativity in particular contexts, but is perceived as having a fresh and creative approach to situations in general. The leader’s way of responding to events as they arise is considered imaginative. Here a creative responsiveness has become transcontextual.

Finally, the leader himself is perceived as a creative person. Creativity appears not only in and through what he or she does and how she does it, but as part of the leader’s very nature. The British business leader Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin brand, possesses this kind of creative aura. His participation in intercontinental balloon races is considered congruent with his general persona. And this imaginative quality is something that he tries to imbue his companies with, even in traditional industries not renowned for creativity, such as the railways.

To the extent that creative leaders are made not born, we can thus see a developmental pathway in which it is important for the would-be leader to develop an array of creative problem-solving methods, honouring both the systematic and the serendipitous, the disciplined and the free. By developing many complementary forms of creative activity, the leader can find him- or her- self responding creatively in many different contexts, both at work and at home. In this way creativity becomes part of who he or she is. Churchill’s capacity to offer the British inspired wartime leadership is not unrelated to his mastery of the art of writing and his hobby as a water-colourist.


Developing Creative Leadership

Fortunately, it is much easier to develop creative leadership than we might anticipate. This is because both creativity and leadership share a common underlying structure. In particular, both depend upon the ability to balance the same kind of complementary qualities, as is well-recognized in the cultures of the East.

For instance, both creativity and leadership need the ability to be proactive, to take and hold a direction, complemented by receptivity and sensitivity to context that allows one to pick up trends, notice opportunities, and make connections. On a similar vein, creativity and leadership both call for an ability to focus attention on a point, sometimes to the point of obsession or tunnel vision, while being able to maintain a very open perceptual field. Both creativity and leadership require the ability to remain close to the inner wellsprings of inspiration, while being ready to turn insight into action.

Because of this similarity in underlying structure, it is possible to stimulate the development of creativity and leadership in a synergistic way. As we develop creativity, we can open up leadership potential. And as we bring out the underlying qualities of leadership, we can acquire a more creative approach to problems. Furthermore, we can accelerate the development of creative leadership, by focusing on five common elements.

Firstly, we can develop our ability to be purposeful. Both creativity and leadership require the ability to take and hold a direction. This we can do on different levels, as we become both a focussed, purposeful person and someone who can focus on important issues. This is a key element in stimulating creative problem-solving and is also essential for the leader.

Secondly, we can develop our ability to be a reflective person. We can take time out to think things over, to relax and connect with the sources of inspiration within us. Much creativity arises when we let go of things and relax for a while. The leader, too, needs a Camp David, time at the ‘Dacha’, or its equivalent, to mull things over and allow the new to come forth. Periods of meditation and relaxation are vital to both leadership and creativity.

Thirdly, we can develop our ability to put our heart and soul into what we do. We can develop our ability to commit fully to a course of action. This becomes easier, as we open up our expressive abilities, our capacity to let go of boundaries and think in a free and spontaneous way. Both the leader and the creative person, need to let the mind freewheel, to think the unthinkable, and then have the courage to put into action what is not necessarily obviously accepted by the conventional wisdom. For instance, in the early 80s, Margaret Thatcher did the unthinkable and discarded the presupposition of previous Labour and Conservative governments that the only way forward was through muddy compromise. Similarly, Tony Blair remoulded the Labour Party to make it electable again by sacrificing some sacrosanct ideology and hauling the party towards the centre, at a time when many still thought this was impossible.

Fourthly, we can complement our ability to focus with an ability to be ‘open to the field’, to be receptive to the currents flowing in our environment. We can learn to recognize the patterns and connections implicit in our world and notice the opportunities, resources, and relationships that will help support us. In this way, we make creative connections and our leadership becomes as much about flowing with the stream of time, as it does about directing that stream. Our leadership is characterized by service as much as mastery.

Naturally, developing these four poles of experience, calls for us to find a pivotal place, a fulcrum between the various pairs of opposites. For this, we need to become centred and aware.

To some extent developing our ability to be at home with opposites, such as being able to reconcile a deep connection with inner experience and an easy freedom with outer expression, will lead us naturally to the point of balance. Higher levels of performance will demand greater alignment. On the other hand, as we become more centred and aware in our lives, we naturally find that we can flow comfortably between opposite qualities. Greater alignment facilitates higher levels of performance.

Developing the ability to be centred and aware, is thus not only the fifth element of creative leadership, it is the alpha and omega, the beginning and end of our development in both creativity and leadership.

So while both creativity and leadership have a measure of elusiveness and mystery, by working with their common deep structure, we can stimulate both, using some similar elements. By developing the ability to focus outcomes, express ourselves freely and creatively, connect with inner sources of inspiration through meditative practices, open our senses and sensitivity to be fully attentive to the field of experience, and above all by rooting ourselves at the centre of these diverse strands, we can become creative leaders, leading creatively and creating at the leading edge of our field. And, above all, we can have enormous fun accelerating the unfolding of our potential as we do so!

Peter Wrycza, PhD