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What is (creative) leadership?


by Kim Goodwin

Discussions of leadership are all around us. Business titans and sportsmen offer up the secrets of leadership in countless “how-to” books lining the walls of airport bookstores, yet we hear less about creative leadership. We’re more likely to see a leadership book written by the captain of the Australian cricket team than by the director of a blockbuster film. Personally, I don’t think we give creative leaders the respect they deserve.

Have you ever stopped to ask: what actually is leadership?

We are told by employers and business coaches that we all should aspire to be leaders, but there’s actually very little agreement as to what leadership is. In 1994, one researcher wrote that more than seven thousand academic articles had been written on leadership. Even with all these words, no definitive definition has been agreed upon, then or since.

Different perspectives of leadership
For some, leadership relates to hierarchy: those in management and in positions of authority or seniority. In art and culture, we often look toward artistic directors, gallery heads, CEOs, and general managers of our large institutions as examples of community leaders. But leadership is not management. The operational running of an enterprise is an exercise in the coordination of resources and administration; it’s not leadership, which is removed from day-to-day operations.

Theoretically, what constitutes leadership has changed over time. At first, leadership was considered an innate set of qualities identified in a lucky few. This was known as the “great man theory,” for obvious reasons. While the “leaders are born, not made” argument seems easy to dismiss, it has recently returned to popularity, with studies linking leadership to physical characteristics, such as height. Some have even claimed to uncover a “leadership gene.”

In the 1950s, focus shifted to understanding what leaders do. Leadership became a set of behaviours that could be learned and applied. We all could be leaders if we developed the right skills—a view still prevalent in the world of leadership development today. Unfortunately, this approach often neglects the environment in which leaders operate. In response, research began to consider the context, or situation, in which leadership occurs. In all these theories, leadership is embodied within an individual, with a strong focus (particularly since the 1990s) on characteristics such as charisma.

In more recent decades, however, there has been a shift to consider leadership as a more holistic concept. A widely shared TED talk by Derek Sivers, called “How to Start a Movement,” highlights the crucial role of the first follower. Critics of traditional leadership theory tell us that what we call “leadership” neglects the incredibly important role of followers. Leadership is not embodied in one man (or woman), but is a process that occurs between people. Without followers, there is no leadership.

For most of us, particularly anyone working in the creative sector, where, according to the 2011 Australian Census, more than 90 percent of people work in businesses of less than twenty employees, leadership can be something else entirely. Leadership in the creative sector is often what is known as distributed, or relational. It is a fluid process that exists in networked groups, which come together to achieve shared goals through collaborative processes. It doesn’t relate to job titles or pay grades, but emerges within a group to guide the team as needed at a particular moment, and may change from person to person as required.

Is creative leadership different than “regular” leadership?
Discussion of creative leadership has echoed the development of leadership theory in many ways. Leadership in the creative sector has been studied predominantly from the organisational perspective, examining the intersection of the artistic and the administrative in large arts companies or institutions.

In today’s knowledge-driven economy, however, where companies aspire to be the next Apple, creativity and innovation are seen as “silver bullets,” leading many in the business world to examine creative leaders with renewed focus. Orchestra conductors, for example, with their ability to bring seventy musicians together into a single, cohesive musical unit, are seen as leadership role models by many. And theatre directors, who enlist diverse talents to construct and communicate a shared vision, are identified as great un-lockers of creative potential.

Leadership and creativity are similar in that they were both originally thought to be individual qualities. As in the “great man” theory of the past, creativity—or talent—was seen as a “gift” bestowed on a lucky few. We now know that creativity and leadership both emerge as processes between individuals, and can be fostered and shared.

For many, leadership has always been linked to the achievement of defined goals. But for a creative individual or organisation, goals might be harder to quantify than for a bank or retail organisation. Creative leadership is not as simple as breaking even, or delivering a return to shareholders. Leadership in the cultural sphere is, as Sydney Festival Director Wesley Enoch writes, “…creating space for opposing voices, about imaging a future, exploring the repercussions of our values and promulgating public debate through the work we make and the relationships we create.” (Source: “Take Me to Your Leader: the dilemma of cultural leadership,” issue 40 of Platform Papers).

Creative leadership is about more than meeting performance goals. It is about imagining a future for our communities, and bringing people together to communicate those visions. This is what makes creative leadership such an exciting concept.

What does this mean for you as a creative practitioner? When someone asks if you are a leader, do not measure yourself against an idealised, organisational version of leadership. Consider instead your vision and the ways you are achieving it in partnership with others. This is what makes you a leader.

 Kim Goodwin is an academic researcher and arts manager with a background in leadership, human resources, and career development. Since leaving her corporate career, Kim has focussed on building understanding in how creative leaders are developed while working in a variety of arts organisations and academic environments. She can be found on LinkedIn, or follow her on Twitter (@KimAroundTown).

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