Dilemmas and trade-offs in creative leadership

Menno van Dijk
January 9th, 2018
Article by: Menno van Dijk
Dilemmas and trade-offs in creative leadership

Can there be exploration without a self-challenging attitude? What is the balance between social and commercial purpose? How is experimentation established, and who is it for? Is there a limit to excellence? We raise those questions based on our study’s contradictory results.

 

In September 2017, THNK School of Creative Leadership launched a survey amongst past participants of the Executive Leadership Program to explore how they fare on the creative leadership dimensions.

 

The survey tool was distributed within our THNK community- a network of over 400 leaders living in over 60 countries around the world. These individuals are all involved in solving large social challenges through innovative enterprise development. Their background experience covers the social, public, commercial and corporate sector. What all those leaders have in common is: passion and purpose, explorative mindset, thinking big, people leadership and an entrepreneurial drive.

 

Many thanks to all our participants; our survey had a response rate of 50%! Below, we discuss the most strikingly unexpected results of the study and turn to you to help us navigate the topic at a deeper level.

Can there be exploration without a self-challenging attitude?

We hypothesized that creative leaders are open-minded, explorative minds: open to challenge conventional assumptions as well as their own deepest held beliefs. What we found, instead, was that most in our sample reported to have a low frequency level of challenging their own convictions. Indeed, they reported that their primary approach in exploring new ideas is following their own intuition and gut feeling, not challenging it.

There are two modes of thinking: intuitive and deliberative. It is often argued that calling upon both tools and seeking balance between inner sensing and conscious reasoning is the optimum way of generating ideas, discussing argumentations and decision-making. Contrariwise, one-sided dominant thinking has raised concerns for potential biases and tendencies to overlook important signs. Kahneman’s experiments, reveal different types of “cognitive biases” specifically in intuition-dominant thinking. These biases refer to unconscious errors of reasoning that distort our judgment of the world and are fuelled by our blind trust to our intuition. One such type of bias is confirmation bias, meaning the tendency to seek for data and facts that validate our intuition, while overlooking or dismissing clues that don’t fit our understanding. The question we pose here to creative leaders is: if, based on your strongly held beliefs and intuition, you do take a contrarian stance and drive breakthrough change, what clues and signals would still make you pause and reconsider?

dilemmas and trade-offs in creative leadership

“I know one thing: that I know nothing” — Socrates

What is the balance between social and profit purpose?

We hypothesized that creative leaders can balance their organization’s social purpose and profit orientation, finding a way to make money doing good. They stay focused on positive value creation, while making their enterprise financially successful and sustainable. However, when presented with the dilemma “considering the social impact vs considering profitability”, most in our sample prioritized their societal responsibility.

Social and profit purpose belong in the two opposite ends of the “purpose spectrum”, with one end being occupied by non-profit organizations, defined exclusively by their social mission and the other end being taken up by companies focusing mainly on their asset distributions, while lacking social purpose. There are, however, impact-driven enterprises, that manage to strike a balance between the two extremes, taking different approaches in doing so. In these cases, profitability is perceived both as a means to the venture’s self- sustainability and as a self-monitoring mechanism. Here, ‘wealth’ does not refer merely to profit generation but to social and environmental capital creation, as well. The questions we pose here to creative leaders: What are key points in maintaining a balance in the “purpose spectrum”? Is the middle point on this spectrum indeed the optimum? Could it perhaps be a sub-optimal compromise instead- neither fish nor fowl?

dilemmas and trade-offs in creative leadership

What are key points in maintaining a balance in the “purpose spectrum”? Is the middle point on this spectrum indeed the optimum?

How is experimentation established, and who is it for?

We hypothesized that creative leaders value experimentation across their entire organization. Indeed, most in our sample favour an experimentation and innovation culture. They apply innovate problem-solving and cast creative teams that approach projects and ideas from novel angles. However, very few of them invest in innovation training programs across their organization.

Are practical restrictions, such as budget constraints, potential underlying reasons for the limited implementation of innovation training programs? Could it be that innovation cannot be trained? Or should training be limited to those in the organization directly responsible for innovation? Should creativity and innovation be a generic or specialized skill?

dilemmas and trade-offs in creative leadership

Why are investments in innovation training programs across the entire organization limited?

Is there a limit to excellence?

We hypothesized that creative leaders direct their organizations towards ongoing excellence, and raise the performance bar to empower and engage their team members. In our sample, however, concern about ongoing performance excellence was not felt as strongly as we expected.

Striving for excellence is generally perceived as an important part of professionalism. Considered to be an indicator of quality work and perseverance, the pursuit of excellence distinguishes high from low achievers.

It has also been counter-argued that striving for excellence is not the way to go. According to Tom Peters, “excellent firms don’t believe in excellence – only constant improvement and constant change.” For them, pursuit of excellence has no ceiling; hence, it never stops. Striving for the perfect outcome could even drive you away from the process that will ultimately get you there. Moreover, pursuits of excellence might be confused with perfectionism, which is very likely to sabotage one’s performance. Perfectionism allows no room for mistakes and is accompanied by vulnerability to distress, setting unrealistically high expectations, grounding one’s self-worth on achievements. So, our questions to creative leaders: Are there drawbacks to high-achieving attitude? What is the thin line between striving for excellence and perfectionism?

dilemmas and trade-offs in creative leadership

Are there drawbacks to high-achieving attitude? What is the thin line between striving for excellence and perfectionism?

Get in touch

What are your perspectives on the issues raised above? Please send us your own insights, thoughts on plausible explanations or suggestions on how to address those issues and support creative leaders.

Everyone who wishes to take part in our study, by filling in our survey, and receive a customized feedback report, is very welcome to contact Afroditi (lead researcher on the creative leadership research projects) through afroditi.terzi@thnk.org.

To discover how the THNK Executive Leadership Program can help you further develop your potential leadership ability, visit the program page or contact us at admissions@thnk.org.

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