What is Creative Leadership?

What is Creative Leadership?

This article is the first installment of our four-part series on creative leadership. Check out the rest of the articles in the series here: Characteristics of Creative LeadersHow Creative Leaders Live In Paradox; and 5 Influencers of Creative Leadership.


The growth of technology and machine intelligence has reformed society in the past decades. This newly interconnected and symbiotic world has given rise to new societal and global challenges, and leaders must face these head-on by using bold and creative solutions. The expansion of connectivity and efficiency asks innovators to bridge the gap between natural and manmade ecosystems. Disruptive leaders tackle these large-scale global issues using systemic approaches to local solutions, which require intimate and empathetic knowledge of the contexts, needs, and culture.

The definition of creative leadership

Creative leadership is a philosophy and an act: it develops and realizes innovative ideas through the shared ambition of improving the world through enterprise formation. Those who employ creative leadership do so by forging an environment that promotes creativity, innovation, and mission-driven entrepreneurship.

Creative leadership as a philosophy embraces change as a given while seeking opportunity everywhere. It envisions desirable futures and unleashes the courage, collaboration, and creativity of contributors. Through a generous, inclusive purpose deeply rooted in pragmatic idealism and empathy, it gives rise to a transcendent consciousness that goes beyond individual gratification.

Creative leadership as an act builds on those desirable futures through scalable enterprises derived from innovative strategies. Creativity, critical analysis, experimentation, big vision, collaboration, bold action, calculated risk-taking, agility, and hard work all drive participative value and serve the triple bottom line (planet, people, profit).

Creative leadership as a philosophy embraces change as a given while seeking opportunity everywhere. Click To Tweet

Theories of leadership

Leadership theories have been around since storytelling was created. Theories and principles that have withstood centuries range from Plato’s dialogue on leadership in Republic (“The heaviest penalty for declining to rule is to be ruled by someone inferior to yourself”), Machiavelli’s The Prince and Lao Tzu’s polar definitions: “It is better to be feared than loved,” said one; the latter, “A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves.” Tao Te Ching.  In the advent of the industrial revolution, we see a progression from a dominant leader style remnant of the early 20th century, to a more egalitarian style befitting open democracy, in which interpersonal communication has lost its hierarchy, and value is judged on more than consumer satisfaction alone.

Scientific Management (Taylor – 1905) aimed at maximizing employees’ effectiveness through specialism. The Great Man theory, which proposed that leaders are born, not made, was expounded in The Trait theory which holds that only men with the inborn characteristics for leadership will be successful, and have the innate ability to take their natural place when crises arise.

Lewin et al. (1939) defined three organizational leadership styles: autocratic, democratic, and laissez-faire, with varying levels of management involvement and directive. Three decades later, Dr. Rensis Likert described the Participative Leadership theory in which leaders show great concern for employees, and include them in the decision-making process. Fred Fiedler believed that the best leadership style was the one that best fits a given situation, and accordingly proposed the Contingency Theory of Leadership and the Least Preferred Co-worker Scale to establish whether a manager-supervisor was a good match for his leadership assignment.

Creativity and innovation are the most crucial skills for 21st-century leadership. Click To Tweet

Robert House published a theory of Charismatic Leadership in which the leader is characterized as “dominant, having a strong desire to influence others, being self-confident, and having a strong sense of one’s own moral values.” Gary Yukl added elements of the Participative Leadership theory, pointing to conscious joint decision, and delegation of authority. Dr. Paul Hersey and Dr. Ken Blanchard proposed Situational Leadership style based on the maturity or developmental level of the follower. Robert Greenleaf proposed Servant Leadership, which only caught on in the mid-1990s when Larry Spears dissected Greenleaf’s ideas into ten defining characteristics of servant leaders. This latter gained more impetus in the aftermath of repeated ethical failures within large brand-name organizations within the US and beyond, in the first decade of the 21st century.

The limitations of large corporations also resulted in renewed interest in leadership associated with small enterprise development. Entrepreneurial leadership can be defined as the ability to anticipate opportunities, envision a new enterprise concept, work with others and maintain flexibility and initiate changes that will create a viable future for the enterprise.

The global outcry surrounding the rising concern about global inequality, the sustainability of the planet, and the realization of the interdependency of all things, gives rise to a need for new leadership. Einstein once offered that creativity and innovation are needed to solve the complex problems of the world. Today, creativity and innovation in leadership are crucial for the 21st century and beyond.

Creative Leadership not only incorporates moral values, but inspirational influence as well. Click To Tweet

Supporting leadership theories

Almost all leadership theories to date are described within the context of an organization in which the relationship between leader-follower are key, thereby orienting leadership inward.

The three most recent leadership theories consciously recognize the importance of higher, moral values.

Transformational Leadership – an individual leader engages with others and creates a connection that raises the level of motivation and morality in both the leader and the followers, by raising followers’ level of consciousness about the importance of organizational values and goals. This allows followers to transcend their own self-interest for the sake of the team or organization, and moving toward collaboration for higher-level needs. Specifically, Brown (1994) speculated that transformational leadership is needed in an evolving technological society. Society is moving from controlled change to accelerated change nearly beyond control, meaning that attitude and behavior both require the attention of transformational leaders.

Authentic Leadership – a pattern of behavior that draws upon and promotes both positive psychological capacities and a positive ethical climate, to foster great self-awareness, an internalized moral perspective, balanced processing of information, and relational transparency on part of leaders working with followers, fostering self-development. “Discovering your authentic leadership requires a commitment to developing yourself.”  (George, Sims, McLean & Mayer, 2007).

Servant Leadership – Traditional leadership generally involves the accumulation and exercise of power by one at the “top of the pyramid” – command and control. Servant-leaders, however, lead on the basis of shared power, put the needs of others first and help people develop and perform as highly as possible.

Creative leaders today recognize the importance of higher, moral values. Click To Tweet

Creative Leadership is a natural progression from these theories of leadership, incorporating not just moral values, but inspirational influence, pushing beyond these into the realms of social impact, inter-enterprise collaboration, while actively safeguarding planet Earth and its resources.

To strengthen your creative leadership skills, join a global community of creative leaders in the THNK Executive Leadership Program.