The paradoxes of creative leadership

Rajiv Ball
Article by: Rajiv Ball
The paradoxes of creative leadership

When we began the search for the answer to the question “What are the competencies of the creative leader?”, we set ourselves to the task. We reviewed the academic literature on leadership, we spoke to multiple companies that aspire to develop their leaders and we worked with firms that specialize in leadership development.


From these multiple sources, we learned that leadership is context-specific, thus paradoxical: leaders that are successful in one context (such as a multi-national company) have no guarantee of being successful in another (for example, a public institution). We discovered that self-awareness is the cornerstone of leadership: great leaders are aware of what we call their ‘leadership gifts’ as well as their ‘learning edges’. And we found out that self-awareness helps leaders to build authenticity, as great leaders think and act from a place of truth within themselves.


Yet when we looked for the specific characteristics of a creative leader – the leader who can work in the volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous world of today – we were left wanting. We came across many interesting competency models, such as the ‘Be-Know-Do’ model of the US Military or the ‘Lead Self, Lead Others, Lead Business’ model used in many multinationals. Yet we could not find a compelling answer to the question, "What are the attributes of a successful creative leader?"


To respond to this challenge, we developed the THNK Creative Leadership Model. As we tested our emerging creative leadership model against some of our favorite creative leaders – leaders such as Steve Jobs, Mohammed Yunus, and Richard Branson – we found that our creative leadership model did a good job of pinpointing the attributes of the creative leaders that we are trying to nurture at THNK.

paradoxes of creative leadership

The core characteristics of a creative leader.

The quest for creative leadership

First, let us explore the THNK Creative Leadership Model. It has four key general attributes for competency. Within each key competency, we have identified what we call a ‘signature strength’ or core leadership attribute. The competencies are:

  • Exploring
  • Architecting
  • Conducting
  • Directing

In the Exploring phase, the creative leader discovers new opportunities. Leaders are given the tools to seek inspiration from multiple fields while listening to the trends and signals within their market. Leaders are those who take contrarian stances and challenge existing norms and boundaries to provide an original point of view.

Architecting is when the enterprise concept begins to form. Leaders are guided toward envisioning big, beautiful and tangible solutions that shape a better world. In this phase, creative solutions are developed and optimized for the shared value of improving the planet and people’s lives, while making a sustainable economic return.

Conducting leverages on the collective power of the team. Leaders learn how to assemble and guide a team of talented creatives, and how to introduce a culture of sensing, visioning, prototyping and scaling. Developing this dexterity benefits growth from failure, and leaders are taught how to build a culture that learns –and grows–  from its mistakes.

Directing drives breakthrough impact to scale. Creative leaders learn the skills to master resilience and their propensity to fortune, allowing them to turn risks and challenges into opportunities. By maintaining a healthy execution cycle, the enterprise concept stays lean, adaptable and nimble to really be able to scale into a competitive, uncertain world. They are able to bring people in their missing by telling a story that creates urgency and moves to action.

paradoxes of creative leadership
Creative leaders learn the skills to master resilience, allowing them to turn risks and challenges into opportunities. Click To Tweet

The paradoxes of creative leadership

Science teaches us that for any given problem there is a right answer. These answers are rational and internally consistent. Creative leadership, in our perspective, is more an art than a science. And unlike in the scientific world, there is often no single right answer; indeed, answers may not even be internally consistent. This is what we call the ‘paradoxes of creative leadership’. In recognition of these paradoxes, THNK’s creative leadership model has a number of built-in tensions. These tensions make creative leadership so interesting and, at the same time, so challenging.

First, there is an inherent tension between exploring and architecting. Both are important attributes of a creative leader and yet fundamentally oppose one another. Exploring, and having an explorative mindset, means engaging with the outside. Architecting, actually building the enterprise, can be all-consuming, leaving scarce time for free exploration; by contrast, an explorative mindset requires ring-fencing time for exploration and play with the outside world. The paradox is having a sense of a path from within and being open to new discoveries from without, knowing what to go for and why, while remaining curious and critical.

Directing and conducting are also frequently in tension with one another. Directing is about setting which course to take through big ideas and thought leadership. By contrast, conducting a creative team is about creating the enabling conditions for creativity and empowering others to create. The paradox lies in leading from the front and leading from the back; showing and telling people where to go and giving people the space to let a new vision emerge from within the team.

At THNK, we are comfortable with the tensions inherent in the creative leadership model and we encourage our participants to explore any resistance. These tensions and paradoxes reflect the real world and they are what makes leadership human, interesting and difficult. Being a creative leader is not just a matter of possessing a number of competencies. Creative leadership requires the ability to deal with these tensions, to be able to keep both approaches open at the same time, to thrive on these paradoxes. It’s a singular art that requires practice and self-awareness.

paradoxes of creative leadership
Creative leadership is an art. Click To Tweet

Cultivating creative leadership

Explore the creative leadership model and build self-awareness around your own ‘leadership gifts’ and ‘learning edges’. One way THNK participants do this is by completing the 360 Mirror, our very own leadership assessment. In the 360 Mirror, you conduct a self-assessment of where you stand on the THNK creative leadership model. You can also ask others who have worked with you to conduct the assessment. Participants have found that it makes an excellent foundation for subsequent actions to build creative leadership muscle. In particular, comparing your self-assessment with the assessment of others typically opens up a rich stream of data to reflect on what you can do to become a better creative leader.

Second, based on the outcome of the Mirror, we suggest building a personal growth plan. This personal growth plan captures where you are today on creative leadership, both your ‘leadership gifts’ as well as your ‘learning edges’. Spend at least as much time documenting your leadership gifts as you do your learning edges. We know that great leaders spend as much if not more time on building out their strengths as working to rectify their weaknesses. The plan will provide you with an outline of where you want to be in the future and of actions you need to undertake to get there.

Third, depending on where your personal growth plan takes you, there are a number of tailored exercises that you can conduct to further strengthen your creative leadership competencies. For example, copy the practice of creative artists who keep a daily journal to capture interesting thoughts and new ideas. This will strengthen your Exploring abilities.

Finally, we encourage you to document your journey in creative leadership by journaling every day. Use the journal to record your daily reflections on your leadership. What are you working on today to become a better creative leader? Where are the paradoxes of creative leadership showing up in your life? What will you try to do differently tomorrow? What challenges will potentially come your way and how will you overcome those challenges? How will you use your insights into the paradoxes of creative leadership to change the world?

To learn more about creative leadership and refine your own creative leadership skills, join the THNK Executive Leadership Program.