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Creativity: The New Leadership Imperative

Last week I wrote about how the IBM report, “Capitalizing on Complexity: Insights from the Global Chief Executive Study,” suggested that a majority of CEOs around the globe felt ill-prepared to deal with the increasing complexity in today’s business world.

In response to this finding, IBM asked business leaders to prioritize the three most important leadership qualities in the new economic environment.

The CEO’s #1 choice? Creativity, followed closely by integrity, and global thinking.

Even more interesting were the next six (in order): influence, openness, dedication, focus on sustainability, humanity, and fairness.

Think about that for a minute.

This does not sound like the model for leadership that I grew up with! Where is the visioning and strategic thinking? Where is the tough-mindedness and focus on the bottom line? Where is the ability to inspire and motivate others? And what about the ability to intuitively understand markets and customer needs?

Clearly, these remain important traits for successful leaders. But today’s leaders are telling us that they need new skills in order to effectively lead their organizations through these turbulent times.

What does it mean to be a more creative leader? According to the report, creative leadership involves a lot more than just coming up with new ideas for products or services. Instead, it requires developing new and better ways of leading organizations in the face of volatile markets and constantly changing customer expectations.

In particular, it means coming up with innovative ways of solving the increasingly complex problems facing today’s organizations. To meet these challenges, business leaders must learn to:

  • Act despite uncertainty. Today’s leaders must learn to get comfortable making decisions without having all the information. For one, it simply isn’t possible to have all the information. And two, in the time it takes to gather and thoroughly analyze everything you think you need to know, your market can easily leave you behind.
  • Build innovative organizations. In most organizations, creativity is delegated to a few creative types who are tasked with going off on their own and coming up with new products and services. CEOs are now seeking to integrate creativity and the resulting innovation (turning that creativity into something of real value for stakeholders) through every aspect of the organization rather than isolating it in “creativity silos” such as product design or R&D. Every employee has to learn and practice thinking differently day to day.
  • Trash the status quo. Until recently, upsetting the status quo has been the last resort of companies in trouble. CEOs are now beginning to recognize that it needs to become a strategic priority and an integral part of the way the company does business. See “build innovative organizations” above!
  • Break ground with new business models. Incremental innovation will no longer cut it. Instead, companies need to come up with entirely new ways of creating and delivering value to their customers. Interestingly, the study found that the CEOs who identified creativity as one of their top three leadership qualities were more likely to pursue innovation through business model change.

In the past, business models changed once or twice a generation. And they usually changed slowly and grudgingly. Now they must change faster and more often. The ability to continually revamp and redesign core processes and core competencies has become a major competitive advantage and necessary for survival.

The finding that encourages me the most is that business leaders are finally beginning to see the value in challenging the status quo. Although in the minority, many of the CEOs in the report have begun encouraging a new mindset of questioning in their organizations. They are inviting employees at all levels to challenge assumptions based on past experiences and to take a hard look at the traditional “we’ve always done it this way” thinking that prevents real innovation. The real challenge is teaching thinking differently skills to everyone in the organization. They are often counter intuitive and certainly not what most of us are used to in a corporate setting.

Leading in new ways will require a lot of things, but it all starts with recognizing that we have to learn additional skills and learn how to unlearn some of the ones we have relied on for success to date. We have to develop an awareness of our own thinking processes and be willing to shift them. Then we have to challenge our beliefs and assumptions, constantly considering “what if?” not just about our customers and our markets, but about the way we do things within our organizations and why we do them that way. We have to develop the ability to consider multiple perspectives and focus on winning despite all the noise and distraction. We must constantly ask the right questions and be flexible when everything changes again.

What are you doing to become a leader for today’s challenging world?

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