Find the creative leader in you

Last Updated 30 March 2018, 06:14 IST

Dreamily, I dipped my brush into a little glass bottle of Prussian blue paint and watched in fascination as its colour stained my bold, white canvas. It was beautiful. Encouraged, I went straight for the red, the slightest hint of brown followed closely by another shade of blue, some burnt orange and a dash of lemon yellow. And there I had it - the perfect sunset sky! Almost as perfect as the Leonid Afremov, Before a Storm.

Eighteen years later, I look at this painting, hanging faded, yet vibrant in my cramped office; and then glance at the sleek, new 'Certificate of Leadership Excellence' hanging right next to it. Wearily, I recall how I had always been told, "you're wasting your time - why don't you put that effort into your business degree?" Recollecting all that I've brought to my team over the years, I realise that my business degree did not have much to do with the kind of leader I am today - that painting, however, did.

It's interesting that some of the attributes that distinguish great artists from mediocre ones are the same qualities that distinguish exceptional leaders, from their average counterparts. Great artists and creative leaders alike are known to be persistent, passionate, focused, and always inspired! But like John Maeda pointed out, the underlying stereotype is always going to be, "Artists make Art. Artists do not lead organisations." Haven't we all heard it? Or haven't we made that same assumption to some degree? Creativity brought in by an artist has often been approached with apprehension, as people expect chaos. Leadership, on the other hand, has often been thought of as a more controlled and organised management style.

This perception, however, has been evolving. Nearly all businesses have started to embrace innovation and creativity, as central themes to their success. In fact, a recent survey conducted by World Economic Forum indicates that by 2020, creativity will be one of the top three jobs skills we require to help us thrive in our digitised industries. Leaders are now expected to serve as visionary guides within their teams. In another survey by McKinsey, more than 70% of senior executives say that "innovation" will be at least one of the top three drivers of growth for their companies in the next three to five years.

In today's digital world, we have forgotten how to be creative. We are unable to function without the assistance of our Google crutch, Pinterest or even YouTube. Interestingly, this skill cannot be automated. Therefore, being able to creatively think outside that proverbial box, will soon come to define an individual's success or failure.

Even today when I sit down to create a new painting, I learn something new. It could be how to create slate grey rocks out of a failed paved road, or even wispy hair out of an accidental paint smear. Similarly, applying creativity in leadership can be learnt, not taught. The secret to unlocking this skill remains elusive even today. However, I have learnt that it requires one to have a vision before they can even begin. Here are some other elements that go into that creative pudding:

Express passion beyond self-doubt

Picture the havoc of a stormy ocean. Waves crashing - mist spraying you - the salt-laden wind churning your hair and a desperate loss of all resolve. This is one scene I have never been able to bring to life to its fullest dark charm.

Have you also been guilty of telling yourself "I don't know what I'm doing" or "X could have done this better"? Recent studies have indicated that people with exceptional talent often struggle with low self-esteem. We waste time doubting ourselves, and it's possible that we're doubting our own capabilities. Remember that, the bigger the idea, the greater the force that will challenge it.

Conversely, a creative visionary can easily reframe a problem tactfully enough that it generates a new perspective. They may often be able to construct an ingenious idea into reality! So, if not a stormy ocean - may be the view of a stormy ocean from a distant shoreline? Being passionate about our undertakings and recognising our strengths, can act as a starting point on this journey to creative success.

Persist relentlessly & leap boundaries

In my early years, my first art student approached me after she watched me paint a wall from her balcony. She told me that she was inspired by the confidence it took to design that large wall and how pristine the finished piece appeared. What she did not know was that I had no prior experience in painting walls, nor had my parents approved of this undertaking!

Creativity is amplified by boundaries. These boundaries take away the paralysis of too many options and help one move past expectations with ease and renewed drive. A creative leader is always looking to surpass an expectation or a restraint. Regrettably, most of us have been thriving within boundaries in our workspaces for so long, we no longer recognise them. A prominent few could be; ethnic differences, job titles, generation gaps, and maybe even standardised solutions.

Breaking down these limitations and instilling a sense of oneness within a team, can allow people independence to act and a sense of freeness to master their work. Do more than what is expected and focus all your creative energies on leaping past those barriers.

Stay focused on your big picture

I recall how, with every repeated stroke of my frazzled brush, I reminded myself what I intended to capture. It was easy to settle for less - no one would know any better. The appreciation had already started to stream in before I had even finished.

Isn't that the same trial we face at work? We are able to leap past an expectation with ease, surprise people, and we start to thrive on their compliments and eventually, stop charging forward. Our focus on the smaller details can often drive us off course from the big picture.

It is imperative to identify what's important to you. Is it the perfection of each stroke or each small task done well? Or is it being able to drive change within your industry? When our minds are not overwhelmed by perfecting the little details, we will then be able to highlight and separate the important from the trivial. The creative success you can unlock with a firm focus on your big picture will be nothing short of incredible.

Inspire & be inspired!

Artists and leaders alike can inspire passion, action, and lives! Creative leaders can function with a drive that constantly inspires them to deliver a 100%. So how do you remain inspired, when you find yourself at odds with the larger part of your team(s)?

Constantly remind yourself, and them, of why you do what you do. People are driven by purpose. When you can help them envision a purpose greater than profits, fame or a monthly income; they start to believe in themselves and labour with renewed resolve. Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon, was known to be the kind of leader who could inspire his team to work toward his vision. Though he was known to be demanding, thousands of people still aspire to work for him. He is so driven by a greater purpose that he makes his employees want to overcome any limitation to avoid disappointing him.

Busy streets, fast-moving cars, and a constant caffeine high - our fast progressing culture still regards "creativity" in leadership to be a mysterious, inaccessible attribute. However, it is something that all of us have the potential to tap into. Personal talent, drive, and dedication aren't attributes restricted to an artist in a studio. Like Sydney Finkelstein put it, innovation is part of the leadership DNA. Can we evolve our culture into one that supports experimentation and rewards ideation? It is only then we will see creative leaders start to flourish and an era of innovation start to thrive.

(Published 30 March 2018, 06:14 IST)

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