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Exploring the creativity-leadership debate

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Have you wondered what makes a good leader? What are the attributes that all great leaders share? For example, is it possible to look presidential—that is, embody those physiological characteristics that we, as humans, innately look for in leaders? Are those we think of as great leaders actually great leaders, or is leadership merely a perception—a simple matter of appearance? Is it a matter of projecting the attributes we all believe are fundamental for great leaders? Recently, a group of academics came to a rather startling conclusion—one’s capacity to lead is not only a simple matter of perception, but specifically, creative people are not perceived by their peers as capable leaders.

The paper, “Recognizing creative leadership: Can creative idea expression negatively relate to perceptions of leadership potential?” published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, asks whether creative types can be perceived as leaders. “The most prototypical leader,” says the report, “is expected to organize and coordinate groups to diminish uncertainty and promote order by emphasizing shared goals.” In light of this, what of individuals who think outside of the existing structure of ideas or social action, choosing instead to deconstruct and expose the flaws inherent in established frameworks to bring something better to life? The report indicates that, “far from matching fundamental leadership expectations associated with exuding control and promoting clear goals, the expression of creative solutions may actually introduce ambiguity or uncertainty, in part, because by definition, novel ideas involve deviations from the status quo and are not yet proven.” So what does this mean for individuals interested in moving beyond the status quo? While the report’s authors admit that this theoretical premise is not hard and fast, their empirical research seems to confirm their assessment of the problem: while perceivers may see creative thinkers as competent, they may not necessarily see them as leaders (bar those creative thinkers who exemplify other characteristics of leadership, e.g. charisma).

However, from this study emerges a great paradox, which shifts the focus back onto creative thinkers. While creative types may not embody attributes that characterize a great leader, leaders often fail because they are too stilted and uncreative: the “bias in favor of selecting less creative leaders may explain why so many leaders fail,” insofar as “the leaders selected may simply lack the openness            to recognize solutions that depart from what is already known.”

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