Six Principles of Leadership: The Creative Pathway

Creatives can be Led, Creatives can be Managed; Creatives cannot be Controlled.

That being said; the opposite of “Control” is not necessarily “Out of Control”…

Creative Leadership and the Leadership of Creatives, in this decade of this century, is dependent on these critical qualities in and from the ostensible Leader…

  • Authentic Respect
  • Ongoing & Focused Listening
  • Passion for the Work
  • Humility
  • Exhibited Trust
  • Willingness to Teach and to Learn

Gone are the days of old-fashioned, last-century, top-down Management styles; this, to the confused frustration of many a Managing Director, Creative Director, General Manager, Project Manager, Chairman or CEO. No longer can one Direct or Lead from a position of erstwhile power; for that “power” is now largely irrelevant. Expecting to be followed, heard, or even respected by one’s creative team simply due to a title and body of work simply won’t cut it with today’s evolved Creatives.

Leadership has evolved, as well.

Managing Creativity is, most effectively and productively, inherently and fundamentally collaborative.

Before going into specifics of each Leadership Quality, let’s take a look at the most effective model of such collaborative team-building, inspiration and work: The Theatre.

In Theatre, everyone on the team has an opinion and tends to share it. All members of the team share a passion for what they do and for connecting the story with the audience. The most successful Directors listen to – and hear – everyone; then s/he decides…

Once the Director’s decision is made, the team then aligns and supports the Director in the Vision, the course, the production. Each has been heard, the decision has been made, onward to storytelling victory!

Everyone having been heard gives each individual a sense of being appreciated and respected, as well as offering a sense of investment in the final product. This is collaboration at its most basic and simplest…and a resonant model.

Today, a Creative Leader – or one who Leads Creatives – must be a part of the team. The clearest analogy is, IMHO, to “sit on the same side of the table” as the rest of the team.

So, to the Principles.

Authentic Respect

A Leader must truly respect the team. This means knowing who each is, knowing names, origins, backgrounds, strengths, weaknesses, passions… When launching a project with a new team, a powerful first step is to informally “interview” the members of the team; asking open questions and hearing the answers…answers that often reveal more about the individual than may lie on the surface.

Avoid being “all business,” as people respond better and are far more creative once there is some level of connection amongst the group and with the Leader or Director. Creatives, today … all people, actually … respond more fully and engage more completely when they sense a connection…and this connection cannot be faked.

To respect an individual with whom one works, one must know the individual. Such respect for one’s team engenders reciprocal respect for the Leader. Team members feel seen and heard; thus respected. Thus willing to jump in and contribute without hesitation. Thus giving the process the benefit of the full wealth of talent and creativity.

Ongoing & Focused Listening

There is no rush. Creativity takes the time it takes. Communication takes the time it takes. So, Listen. Fully. Be focused on what is being said and save the evaluation of what’s offered and the formulation of the response to it until the entire idea or concept being shared is articulated and on the table.

You know what we’re saying; it takes discipline to shut down the voice in one’s head that is evaluating and preparing the response to what someone is saying and simply hear everything being said. Countless are the times that the most salient of points is made at the end of an idea, “share” or rant.

Let ‘em talk. Hear all of what is being said before beginning to formulate a response.

Here’s a great rule of thumb, taken from documentary filmmaking. When interviewing a subject, on camera; a question is asked, then answered. It is almost instinctive to, when the interviewee has finished responding, to immediately jump in with another question…to fill the silence with something. However, if the interviewer exercises the discipline to remain silent, to sit with and consider what has just been shared, more often than not it is the interviewee who steps back in with more…and this “more” is usually The Quote or The Moment for which the segment is remembered.

Sometimes, such discipline can completely change the tone and tenor of an interview.

Try this in creative meetings, management meetings. When someone makes a statement, responds to a question or otherwise shares or contributes; take a breath before responding. Use that breath to consider what was just said in it’s entirety and in the context of the conversation. Look around the room and see who’s bursting to contribute…if nothing else, it can make one look smarter!

And, amazingly, these brief pauses to think and consider can actually shorten the time taken to create or develop The Perfect Concept…as everyone at the table is spending more time thinking while they watch you!

Give it a go.

Passion for the Work

A Leader Leads with Passion

This cannot be faked. One who is not passionate about creating experience cannot inspire passion in others. And, far and away, it is the Passion of the Leader that fuels everything else in the process.

It is one’s Passion that most effectively inspires others to invest fully, to participate unhesitatingly, to do their best work in support of the vision.

Articulating one’s Passion, sharing and showing one’s enthusiasm for, commitment to and personal fulfillment derived from the work is – if not the only way – by far the most effective way of gaining the respect and investment of one’s team.

If you’re doing it for the money, do something else. While it is possible to recruit creatives to one’s team with money; the money will not engage them. It is the identification of a Passionate Person of Like Mind that will engage, and will result in the best work.

People may take a job for the money; they will be of far more value when their passion for the work, the craft, the project – for connecting with the audience is met and matched by the Leader. They’ll fight to return and work again with that Leader.



The Leader need not know everything.

The Leader must know how to learn or get or find everything. Leadership is not about telling others what to do; it is about inspiring others to do their best work; even inspiring them to discover new levels of creative insight within themselves.

Letting go of preconceptions about being the Leader and embracing the fact that s/he does not know everything gives the rest of the team the opportunity to contribute appreciable value. Most people enjoy being able to enlighten or expand the knowledge of the Leader through the creative process.

Humility in Leadership inspires increased self-worth on the part of the team members.

Trust, Exhibited

That means trust your people to do their jobs. Be clear about what is wanted and needed; the parameters and responsibilities; be sure that the scope and deadlines are understood and agreed. Then, get out of the way and allow the person to work in the manner in which they do their best work; responsible for the result.

Example: When building a team and launching a project, my approach is to

  • lay out the job responsibilities and be sure they are understood
  • if appropriate, share the process or method by which I would accomplish the job; leaving plenty of room for the person accepting the responsibilities to use any process s/he feels is most appropriate – a composite of mine and hers…or just her method…
  • all I ask is that, if and when it becomes apparent that a deadline may not be met or a result not achieved, s/he comes to me with the problem so we can solve it
  • and, in seeking the solution, I usually ask the person what s/he sees at the best solution…
  • then say, “why not do that, then…”

Permission and Trust. Can’t beat ‘em.

Willingness to Teach and to Learn

Referencing the above section on Trust; a confident Leader must be willing to share the how and why of his own methodologies and practices while keeping the door wide open to learn from those whom one is teaching or leading…

Learning to Question without Challenging keeps information and insight flowing in both directions. The simple fact that someone has a different way of doing things than the way one might historically have done the same thing does not mean that this other way is wrong or worse (or better)…just different.

Be willing to evolve one’s own methodologies, to embrace the new without needing to jettison the, um, old… Continuous and ongoing refreshing of one’s perspective will keep a longtime Leader fresh, relevant, sought after and respected.

Remember: Creatives are managed through Passion, not by Directive.



“IMHO – Creating Compelling Experience” the eBook is a free download from iTunes and iBooks.