The Art of Being a Creative Leader

How Creative Leaders Cultivate Creativity

and Innovation

Creativity is at the center of business innovation, and innovation is the engine of growth. Innovation generates growth because it leads to progress, relevance, and thus prosperity. Without innovation, companies have no chance of survival. It is the task of managers and leaders today to cultivate creativity and innovation in their workforce. How do you lead others to be creative? How do you unlock creativity within your organization? How do you become a creative leader?

In 2016 a global study discovered that the majority of employees, in large as well as small companies, believe that management does not encourage innovative thinking or provide the necessary resources to develop innovative ideas. One possible explanation for this may be that many executives are under the false impression that creativity is an ineffable activity that can’t be managed. But executives can lead for creativity in three distinct ways:

  • establishing an innovative culture at work
  • becoming a role model for creative thinking and behavior
  • implementing proven measures that lead to innovative results

Creative leaders nurture creativity by curating a culture of innovation

Leaders have to lay out the stage for people to be creative on. They need to set the framework of behaviors and values for creativity —  the culture. An innovative culture is shaped by curiosity, playfulness, and openness. These traits can’t be simply summoned by order; they need certain conditions to flourish.

Psychological Safety

To find innovative ideas, people need to leave proven paths, take risks, and explore new opportunities. This only happens if there is trust within the team. Individuals are only willing to take risks if they know they are not going to be punished afterwards. Researcher Amy Edmonson found that this form of trust, which she calls psychological safety, is the foundation of highly efficient and functional teams. She defines psychological safety as “a shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking.”

Candid Conversations

Creativity can only unfold if everyone feels free to express thoughts and ideas and knows that their voices will be heard and respected. Leaders create open minded communities by encouraging others to speak up and to listen. Candid conversations demand more than just polite etiquette; they require the acceptance of unconventional viewpoints and allow for controversy. A false sense of harmony can undermine innovative thinking as much as disrespectfulness. Therefore, a culture of innovation requires both the freedom to explore unconventional ideas and adequate systems of feedback and evaluation.

Rewarding experimentation and failure

Creative leaders have to be crystal clear that experimentation and failure are part of the innovation process. There must be no doubt that failure is expected and may even be rewarded. Low risk-tolerance, on the other hand, will be frowned upon. Some companies have come up with fun and playful ways to recognize and reward or celebrate failures. Failures are valued as learning opportunities. That’s why they need to be shared.

Encourage collaboration

Creative executives make sure individuals are not hiding their best ideas from one another. The thought process for new ideas should be fluid and collaborative. Thinking in silos is not conducive for innovation. This does not mean that collaboration is replacing individual work, but that ideas and problems are transparent and shared on a regular basis. Ideas are discussed before they are fully worked out. This saves time because a team quickly discovers flaws as well as the potential of ideas, and this feedback can be implemented early on. Creative leaders help implement the behaviors for giving productive feedback.

Leaders as role models for creative behavior

Innovation involves everyone in the company, but it often starts at the top. Yet, the traditional top-down, hierarchical leadership model may not be the right fit to foster innovation. Instead, creative leaders lead by example, living the values of creativity that are described above. A creative leader does not need to have the smartest ideas or be more knowledgeable than everyone else. And they don’t even have to make all decisions. But leaders have to model risk taking, embrace failure, and be truly open to new ideas. They demonstrate how they themselves keep learning and developing their own creativity skills. Creative leaders bring in their experience to help their teams identify the most important questions and point to opportunities worth exploring.

“Creative leadership doesn’t require being a lone genius; it requires setting some design constraints for how you work, and flexing a few basic behavioral muscles that you already have.”

-Tim Brown, CEO of IDEO

Creative leaders take actions that drive innovation

Besides setting up an innovative environment through emphasizing right behaviors and values, there are some specific measures that creative leaders can take that will increase profitable, innovative ideas. Creative leaders impact the innovation process by setting the right parameters when hiring, when they put teams together, and by providing necessary resources.

1. Hiring the right people

Ideally, creativity would be a mandatory requirement when hiring. But since every other American believes they are not creative, there simply are not enough people with already well developed creativity skills. Enhancing creative thinking skills should therefore be part of corporate training and professional development.  That being said, the interview process can still filter for creative potential. Typically we tend to be drawn to sociable employees who fit in and don’t stir up the established norms. But against our natural instinct, it might be helpful to find non-conformists — people who will challenge the status quo. We need individuals who are different and bring in fresh viewpoints to foster creativity and innovation. We need people who rethink norms, and we have to make it clear during the hiring process that we want this kind of behavior.

2. Setting up diverse teams

According to Forbes, “Diversity…is no longer simply a matter of creating a heterogeneous workforce, but using that workforce to create the innovative products, services, and business practices that can set a company apart and give it a competitive advantage in the marketplace. “

If you Google “diverse teams innovation,”  you find a number of sources that all come to the same conclusion: there is a strong correlation between diversity and innovation. Innovative teams often include people with different backgrounds, experiences, and perspectives. And because creativity is defined by an open and broad mindset, these findings make perfect sense. New ideas are typically developed through combining or modifying existing ideas. Diverse teams have many experiences to draw from, which naturally makes it easier for them to find new solutions.

The effect of diverse teams can be even amplified by encouraging collaboration across different departments and teams or, by systematically changing the composition of teams on a regular basis. Companies that, for example, have a marketing person work together with finance for a while may see a better understanding of connections and overlap between the two departments, improvement of process efficiency, and an increase of innovative ideas. All these approaches try to break down silos and open broader perspectives.

Last, but not least, creative leaders don’t micromanage diverse teams. Instead they empower them and give them the freedom needed so that their different experiences and backgrounds can pay off.

3. Providing necessary resources to nourish innovation

There are four key resources that creative leaders need to invest in to set the right framework for innovation.


Teams need to have time to work on new ideas outside of the duties of daily business. Some companies follow the 70-20-10 model, devoting 70 percent of their time to their core competency, 20 percent on related projects, and 10 percent to learning new skills and working on side projects. Others implement Google’s 20% innovation time, where employees get one day of the week to work on a new project that they choose.


New ideas have to be tested through market research. Prototypes need to be built and customer reactions have to be evaluated. Even though many strategies like Design Thinking call for quick and inexpensive testing of ideas, there still needs to be staff to run and evaluate experiments.

Investing in creativity training

Creativity is a skill that can be taught. Creative problem solving is a process that can be learned and repeated. Therefore, investing in creativity training pays off for business. Once teams develop a creative mindset and understand how to shift deliberately between divergent and convergent thinking, creativity and innovation is not left to chance, but becomes part of daily routines.


Experimentation and the failures that come with it can be frustrating and hard on morale. Creative leaders help their teams to build much needed stamina and develop resilience to overcome roadblocks.


How to measure creativity?

Some of the people we consider to be the most creative or innovative in history have not received that recognition during their lifetime, like Mozart, Darwin, and van Gogh. How do we know how creative or innovative our teams truly are?

One approach is to measure innovation revenue. What is the revenue for new products, services, and business models in the last three years? But this is not easy to measure for every business. Some groundbreaking innovations take decades to fully develop and to fully realize the financial potential. For example, the invention of the digital camera took years before becoming a product that was ready to be put on the market. And it becomes tricky to measure the financial impact of a new customer service model that might affect several product lines.

A helpful addition to crunching numbers is to observe whether the behaviors of the workforce are conducive for creativity and innovation. If leaders and companies set up the right behaviors to encourage and nourish creativity, innovation will follow. The most innovative companies we know are built on this belief and value system. There would be no Apple, Facebook, Alphabet, or Netflix without creative leadership.

Not every invention will be a financial success. But creating the space for transformation and innovation is one of the fundamental roles of creative leaders.


Creative Leaders characteristics

IBM 2010 Global CEO Study


A Global Survey Explains Why Your Employees Don’t Innovate

Teaching Creativity to Leaders – an interview with the CEO of IDEO, Tim Brown

Ethical Empowerment Starts at the Top – How Marketing Leader Inspire Creative Teams

Linda Hill (Ted Talk): How to Manage for Collective Creativity

Are CEOs Acting Like Creative Thinking Role-Models?