It’s in the eye of the beholder…

Creativity, integrity, and global thinking are quickly gaining visibility as key 21st-century leadership skills. They’re much more than just buzzwords, and creativity especially has been a subject of keen interest for psychologists and entrepreneurs for decades.

Don’t underestimate the value of creativity

All too often, creativity is still only considered an essential organizational capability for specific niches. Product design, marketing, or entrepreneurship, for instance.

In fact, creativity underpins a broad range of essential business capabilities, of which design and development are only two areas. Maybe, it’s because creativity is intangible and hard to measure. Or perhaps, it’s because the results don’t pay off instantaneously. But underestimating creative leadership for competitive advantage is all too common. It’s unfortunate, and a particularly short-sighted approach in an innovation-driven global economy that’s continuously being disrupted by ideas.

Leading for creativity

Creative leaders are able to facilitate their teams or organisations to come up with novel and competitive strategies in a complex, fast-paced business environment. In sectors with constant change and fierce competition, imagination and ‘blue skies’ thinking can mean the difference between costly mistakes and trailblazing strategy. Inside the firm, creative leaders can encourage others to embrace innovation, cultivate diverse ideas, and foster open-mindedness that leads to improvements—incremental and radical. And at the core of it all, a creative approach to leadership doesn’t mean developing all the ideas yourself. That might even be the worst thing to do. It’s not limited to top-down implementation of creative initiatives you’ve designed as an individual. It’s about knowing how to lead for creativity.

Modern executive leadership should reflect this rich, multifaceted reality—one that involves taking an approach that appreciates ideas and engages teams in creative work. Where leaders can enable collaboration, communicate powerfully, and challenge the limits of imagination for business.

Open up flow

Are you listening to your employees? One of the first steps towards creativity for value is communication. Does your team feel the way you do about ideas? Are they excited about the link between creativity and the future? You as a leader are in a great position to unlock what’s already there, bubbling beneath the surface. Creativity doesn’t have to be limited to the next radical innovation, and it certainly doesn’t always have to lead to something marketable. It doesn’t even have to result in something tangible—incremental process changes, problem-solving, ideas for efficiency and cross-cultural collaboration can all start flowing when you as a leader have the competencies to lead for creativity.

Encourage and embrace diversity

For this, leaders need emotional intelligence and the ability to enable and encourage. Know where to look within the firm, and even when to look outside. Understand when and how to be more inclusive to nurture ideas and foster autonomy. If you’ve got a brilliant team, are you giving them the right type of attention? Are you taking your ego out of the equation and really making it about empowering the whole team? Are your meetings structured so every single team member feels heard? Does your team have diverse talents, or even cultures, that complement each other creatively? The possibilities are endless, and it’s definitely a good thing!

Creativity for future-focused leadership

A sustainable perspective on global leadership starts with forward thinking and aims to prepare executives for the future. It’s important that we, as professional leaders, place more focus on creating the right culture, enabling innovation, and growing creative passion. Failed experiments, especially, allow us to develop skills like knowledge management and flexibility that we and our teams need to remain competitive over the years to come. And we all know it takes guts to admit to failure. Even more guts to dig into it and learn from it.

21st-century leadership is not about tactics for the tomorrow we can predict, but strategies that will be relevant when the future isn’t so clear-cut. Understanding your role in leading for creativity is one key part of a sustainable, future-oriented approach to global leadership for the 21st century.