Are you a creative leader or manager? (Redux)

I first wrote about the need for creative leadership about three years ago and since then I get asked “What do you think are the qualities of a great creative director or creative team leader?” more than any other question. I think the question is asked so often because with the economic downturn companies need creative leadership now more than ever and they can’t find enough of it. So I wanted to revisit the subject to add new observations and insights I have learned over the past three years in the hopes that this helps create more great creative leaders.

As I wrote about in my last article, I have found creative leadership can be grouped into two general areas — leaders and managers. Managers do just what the name implies by managing their projects and focusing on individual deliverables. They hold weekly status meetings where the team slowly and painfully goes around the room reporting in on the progress of the workload and concludes with a quick rundown of the highlights from the latest company newsletter. This method maybe great for employees who do repetitive and mindless tasks but anyone creative it is a slow, uninspired death where you increasingly feel like your career is going nowhere. So what makes leaders different? What makes them a source of innovation and leadership instead of just a source of deadlines? Let’s break this problem down into a series of comparative traits that I think clearly separate leaders from managers.

Leadership vs Execution

The void in creative leadership starts with the fact that most companies don’t realize that just because someone is a good designer, information architect or writer DOES NOT mean they have any of the skills needed to be a great leader. When someone is a designer, IA or writer it means they are good at coming up to creative solutions to a problem and meeting deadlines. These are executional challenges that require creativity but to be the person who leads those writers and designers requires a complete different set of skills. It requires an arsenal of skills including psychology, politics and confidence to be successful. You have to be a psychologist who can understand the individual creative process of everyone on your team to know when you need to push them to solve the problem for themselves or help them by giving them some guidance to keep the process moving. You have to be a politician who can understand the matrix of any organization, maneuver your group into a position where they are viewed as having value and then use it to give promotions, raised, praise, etc. You have to have confidence so other people want to listen to you, want to follow you and want to be inspired by you. NONE of these skills have anything to do with the quality of your work as a designer or writer and they need to be developed completely independently. This is why you see time after time that you someone who was a fantastic designer fails miserably when they are asked to take more of a leadership role. There has to be a recognition that as you move up the ladder at any creative organization your skill set has to grow from the executional to the psychological to be successful. I have yet to find a company or agency that has made this realization was grooming their future creative leadership with this in mind.

Insights vs Best Practices

I go to conference after conference where a parade of speakers stand up to talk about their best practices to an audience who is diligently taking notes and trying to translate the knowledge to a form that will work for them. The problem is that best practices have value but without the ability to create your own unique insights you are staying the same as everyone else with no competitive advantage. Leaders are able to use best practices as a starting point but then create unique insights that give them competitive differentiation from everyone else. You need to look at social trends, business results and consumer insights to create real and unique insights to guide the vision of the brand, channel or next project. Spending the time to do this work can generate incredible returns and separate your brand from everyone else and isn’t that the headline that every conference brochure is promising?

Beliefs vs Status Quo

Navigating the politics of any organization can be difficult and you till see that managers deal with this problem by floating along with the status quo letting it move their opinions where it will. They do it because when you have an opinion it means you have declared a position on an issue and you can be judged on it — good or bad. Leaders aren’t afraid of this judgement and often welcome it. They have a strong vision and set of beliefs that they use to guide and drive their team. Think of any great creative leader — Steve Jobs, Ray Eames or Jim Henson — they all had their own unique visions and beliefs that they used to drive their teams. To be a leader you need to be able to develop your own beliefs and access that people will judge you on them but it will be your passion and thinking that will rally them to your side.

Ideas vs Management

Understanding how to position your creative team inside of your company can be a huge factor in its success. Managers create teams that are focused on deliverables, dates and blinding doing whatever is in the creative brief. While that approach doesn’t make any waves within the organization it also means that your group is perceived as a service driven commodity with not much real value. To change this you need to be a leader who makes your group focused on ideas that are always in service of the best consumer experience. This means you need to question what is in a creative brief if it isn’t in service of the idea that creates the best consumer experience. All of this is critical because ideas have value and that value will change the perception of your group and you.

Actions vs Words

Everyone has heard the phrase ‘talk is cheap’ but most people don’t take the time to understand just how true it really is and just how important it is to leading a creative team. Every new leader comes in with a lot of bravado and great sounding ideas but time is the real test of if its anything more than just talk. To be a real leader and to get your team to buy into your vision that talk needs to lead to real actions. It has to happen because creative teams need a sense of security and they need to know that their hard work is part of something real of they will get frustrated, disillusioned and they will leave. So remember that saying the right things is really easy but doing the right things is really hard but people inherently know the difference.

Self Awareness vs Emotional Deafness

Part of being a leader has nothing to do with your team but has everything to do with you and your self-awareness. Managers have an emotion deafness where they aren’t able to read the emotional and physical cues given off by people or teams to know how to get the best out of them. This leads to a blunt force management style where they force everyone to work like they do and the team becomes nothing more than a production shop. This defeats the point of hiring talented creative professionals because you are robbing them of their creativity, ideation and passion. To be a great leader you need to take the time and create the self-awareness to understand your process and how you can include you team in your process so they all rally behind it, make it better and improve their personal process so they get stronger. This is critical because creativity is largely an emotional profession where people need to feel inspired, invested and protected to do their best work.

Great vs Good

The last thing I see in every great leader is that good work is the single greatest threat to great work. Good work is such a threat because it gets the job done and can get sold to a client but its a compromise. Great work takes hard work, thought and the passion to go beyond what could get sold and get to work that is great, meticulously thought out and breakthrough. You get there by treating creativity like a blue-collar profession where are willing to do the extra work to create strong concepts and understand that when it comes to their execution there are no unimportant details.

SO… Now what?

I have found there is no magic bullet for what makes a great leader because their success is also defined by the company they work for, the challenges they need to solve and team they surround themselves with but these are all traits that I have seen in the great creative minds and the great leaders that I’ve worked for and with over the years. It is a difficult subject which is why so many people tend to default to the thinking that leaders were born with that skill set as opposed to thinking that people can learn to be a leader. I don’t agree with the thinking that you have to be born that way because I have found that with the right training and tools anyone who is willing to make a sincere investment in working on the skills listed above can become a great leader. I would love to hear your thoughts on what has made up great leaders you have worked with or what you have done that has created leadership in your team.

Originally published at on September 13, 2012.

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