Click here to preview the new Fast Company

Want to try out the new

If you’d like to return to the previous design, click the yellow button on the lower left corner.

The Most Important Leadership Quality for CEOs? Creativity


For CEOs, creativity is now the most important leadership quality for success in business, outweighing even integrity and global thinking, according to a new study by IBM. The study is the largest known sample of one-on-one CEO interviews, with over 1,500 corporate heads and public sector leaders across 60 nations and 33 industries polled on what drives them in managing their companies in today's world.

Fast Company's annual list of the 100 Most Creative People in Business just took on a whole new depth. And this year's list will be revealed later this month.

Steven Tomasco, a manager at IBM Global Business Services, expressed surprise at this key finding, saying that it is "very interesting that coming off the worst economic conditions they'd ever seen, [CEOs] didn't fall back on management discipline, existing best practices, rigor, or operations. In fact, they [did] just the opposite."

About 60% of CEOs polled cited creativity as the most important leadership quality, compared with 52% for integrity and 35% for global thinking. Creative leaders are also more prepared to break with the status quo of industry, enterprise and revenue models, and they are 81% more likely to rate innovation as a "crucial capability."

creativity poll

Other key findings showed a large disparity between views of North American CEOs and those from other territories.

For example, in North America, 65% of CEOs think integrity is a top quality for tomorrow's leaders, whereas only 29-48% of CEOs in other territories view it as such.

Ironically, while company leaders in North America will bring more integrity to the job, they also expect far more regulation than foreign heads — both presumably reactions to negative public perception and heavy government intervention following the recession. A full 87% anticipate greater government oversight and regulation over the next five years — only 70% of CEOs in Europe hold this opinion, and 50% and 53% in Japan and China, respectively. Meanwhile, nearly double the amount of CEOs in China view global thinking as a top leadership quality, compared with Europe and North America.

government global thinking

The area of focus the regions can all agree on is customer focus: 88% of all CEOs, and an astounding 95% of standout leaders, believe getting closer to the customer is the top business strategy over the next five years.

IBM will be holding a Web dialogue with experts to discuss the study's findings. You can find a link for the Web cast here, and a schedule as follows:

  • Creative Leaders Webcast - 8am-9am EDT
  • Connected Customers Webcast - 1pm-2pm EDT
  • Dexterous Organizations - 8pm-9pm EDT

What do you think of the findings? Is creativity the most important leadership quality today? Don't forget to sign up for our Most Creative People in Business conference, which is sure to provide excellent insight on the topic.

[Sidebar image via LitReview]

Add New Comment


  • Sara Jacobovici

    I couldn't be happier to see that creativity is a factor being considered and valued in business. I would, however, be curious to learn how companies and individuals define creativity. It is scary to see "creativity" higher than "integrity" on the list of most important leadership qualities.

  • Richard Bond

    Great Piece, insightful and interesting! Look forward to seeing how this develops over time and the impact it will have on us personally and professionally!

  • Laura Rodriguez

    Great piece — and everybody agrees: Richard Branson says “At Virgin, we encourage and reward creativity in our employees and, as I have already said, we have enjoyed the success of empowering other people’s good ideas.”

    Tony Hsieh says, “By having the freedom to be creative in our solutions, we end up making our own luck. We approach situations and challenges with an open mind.”

    While Steve Jobs says: “Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask a creative person how they did something, they may feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after awhile.”

    In life and business we need more creativity,... For more on the subject, check out The Creative Advantage Book, a nice how-to guide.

  • jann sabin

    I agree that creativity is key. There isn't an area in business where expansive innovative thinking isn't required. The problem is that doing something that has never been done involves risk, and businesses (except for small or start-ups), don't encourage risk and often punish those who try and fail. Creativity means taking risks, and risk-taking means permission to fail...and try again, learning from your first try. I've recently put together a piece, Creativity Jump-Start, that lists some tactics that work for me over the years as a Creative Director. If you'd like a copy, just email me (, or check SlideShare where it's posted.

  • Keith Harmeyer

    While it may not always seem so (based on what we read), CEOs didn't get to the top of the corporate food chain by being clueless. In today's "Innovate or Perish" marketplace, creativity and the ability to act on those creative ideas is crucial for corporate survival. Where just a few years ago, operational efficiency (faster/cheaper = better) was the yardstick of market success, today it is about anticipating consumer demand and providing the better mousetrap before anyone else does. And that requires serious creativity. Just look around at the market leaders - Apple (who recently overtook Microsoft as the largest technology company), Google, Facebook, Starbucks, Amazon - innovators all. Creativity (a.k.a. "creative thinking") is the catalyst of innovation. No idea, no innovation, no more customers.

  • Jake Stum

    Austin and others. I am working on assignment on Creativity and Leadership. I am supposed to ask "experts" what they are currently researching as it relates to creativity and leadership. Any takers?

  • mark bloemhard

    Very interesting.... but, can I get the reference to the original study? I'm in the middle of working on my PhD in Leadership and Change and my interest is in creativity.... please advise!

  • Cory Wright

    As a Creativity Expert, this article obviously gets me excited. However I do believe it can be misinterpreted. Here’s my take: - While not hard research, the survey of 1500 CEO opinions is significant. Now people just have to change their mindset of Creativity. It is much more than ideation and needed beyond the BIG idea. Creativity, big and small, is needed in every aspect of the organization. It is defined so many different ways. Essentially, it's the ability to produce new and useful insights. Creative Leadership, to put it concisely is the ability to think, act and enable others to think creatively and solve complex challenges. Who doesn't value that.

  • Zino Vogiatzis

    why is this surpising?
    all these ceo's look the same, dress the same, talk the same, are the same age, wear the same glasses, have the same haircut, think the same - contrast your average ceo w/ Steve Jobs for example
    it is exactly the lack of imagination that would be of concern during severe downturns

  • Susy Wagner

    There's a strong connection between trust -- a character quality -- and creativity. When leaders trust themselves, their boards of directors, and their relationships with their customers, they feel safe to take the risks associated with creativity. When leaders build a culture of trust, they create an environment in which followers feel free to take creative risks. CEOs may think that creativity is what's most needed today, but character still matters.

    Susy Wagner

  • Maxwell Pinto

    Vision, creativity, ethics, perseverance, exemplary professional background,etc. are all important. Some thoughts on leadership:

    Leadership is the art of mobilizing others toward shared aspirations in an ethical manner. Leaders must take care of employees who, in turn, are responsible for taking care of all other stakeholders: owners, customers, suppliers, the government, community and the environment, thereby resulting in an increase in the welfare of all parties involved.

    Great leaders are visionaries whose intuition helps them to recognize and capitalize on business opportunities in a timely manner. Their success is based on surrounding themselves with “like-minded” professionals who complement them to help reinforce their strengths and eliminate their weaknesses. They build teams consisting of individuals who complement one another in a way that ensures consistent performance in line with corporate goals. Mediocre leaders surround themselves with yes-people who are unable to contribute positively to the bottom line!

    The wisdom of effective leaders enables them to appreciate the views of their inner circle and others. In situations where consensus cannot be reached, they have an uncanny ability to cut to the chase and make informed decisions. They foster an environment that encourages the sharing of ideas through brainstorming while realizing that innovation need not be preceded by the existence of committees.

    True leaders place a great deal of emphasis on culture and shared values. They realize that business involves human beings and that profitable growth results from fruitful relationships. Formal power is entrusted to them by virtue of their position in the company. Informal power results from their core belief system. They lead by example, thus earning the respect and admiration of their peers and subordinates. As a result, employees are enthusiastic about going beyond the call of duty for “their” leaders.

    Great leaders build organizations that are vibrant and performance driven. They structure compensation packages that reward people on the basis of individual as well as team performance. They believe that a base salary pays the bills, whereas variable compensation, including EBITDA-based bonuses, motivate employees to challenge themselves and increase their contribution to the firm consistently.

    Leadership traits can create a virtuous cycle for the organization’s stakeholders. Ethical leadership calls for morals, fairness, caring, sharing, no false promises or unreasonable demands on others, a genuine “green” approach, rather than “green washing,” as an exercise in public relations, etc. Is “ethical leadership” an oxymoron?

    For free abridged books on leadership, ethics, teamwork, motivation, sexual harassment, etc., write to

    Maxwell Pinto, Business Author

  • Mitch McCrimmon

    Great statement of the meaning of heroic leadership but are we not past all this hero worship now? What about post-heroic leadership? Most of what you say about leadership has been around for a good 20 years. I think it's time we made a fresh start. The old cliches about leadership, in my view, fail to differentiate leadership from management.

  • Adriana

    Wow, the comments are interesting and ranging from indignant to overly number crunching analytical IMHO but that is not to say that they are invalid. At first read, my interpretation of this article was benign because I see it as a sign of the times. In light of the economic turmoil that affects us all, CEO's are merely trying to survive and in order to survive attributes like creativity become more important. The questions that keeps many leaders up at night is "Where can we go from here?, how do I reinvent my business/change my model, etc?".

    Many 'followers' only wait for the leader to produce the answes and don't really step up to the plate and join in the heavy lifting of thinking hard and long on how to survive and weather the changing climate. Many 'followers' are no more than armchair quarterbacks that think they can do a better job but lack the guts and risk it all and go for it themselves. I suspect that some of the comments here come from people who have never started their own company. I'm a person that has always held integrity as my top attribute because I've felt that this is something I can take to the bank. Right now, however, I need to get a bit more creative about how I can evolve my business and ultimately survive or else decide to shut it down and start something different.

    Oh, and to the person who said that employees should be engaged in the creativity department, well, the invitation does not need to come on a silver platter. When I was an employee I did not wait for the invitation to land on my desk to provide proposals and ideas that would help the company. As a leader, I wish I would have such people stepping up because then I'd know they care enough and that would raise my respect for them. I've tasked people before to come up with new solutions and approaches and have found that people don't want to work that hard. They just want the leader to do it for them and fully expect that is the way it should be.

    Ok, end of soapbox and hope I did not offend people too much.

  • Rob Day

    I guess I am the number cruncher :) I do completely agree for the need for creativity in a CEO as I stated in one of my posts. It's just my pet peeve when statistics are misrepresented. The conclusion drawn that creativity is considered the most important is not backed up in these numbers, and I just needed to point that out in an example.

    I still believe that if only allowed to pick one MOST important trait, and randomizing the options you'd find integrity come out on top which would quell some of the indignation. Creativity without integrity can lead down a scary road. Perhaps CEOs are thinking the one "EXTRA" thing they need is creativity and integrity is a given.

  • Barb Reindl

    I agree with a few of the comments out there. One key comment is that to determine what are the most important leadership "traits", it is likely best to:
    1) Find successful companies
    2) Ask those who CHOOSE to follow a leader WHY they follow.....or study WHY they follow.

    To ask any of us WHY we are successful will typically give a biased myopic view based on what we think...

    Still interesting, I do think that creativity goes along with innovation and initiative....and the most creative people I know all profess borrowing great ideas from others and building on them. I DO think that great leaders can spot a great idea and build on it.

    So, I DO agree that creativity is important...but not as important as honesty, integrity and influence based on earning the trust of others.
    Barb Reindl Pjevach
    Senior VP Marketing and Administration

  • R R Dasgupta

    Here's what I find a tad surprising. The Survey (as Chris Reich rightly points out) does not mention anything about what Indian CEOs think. This too when Fast Company had a special category called "India" in their published Most Creative Companies". Not a problem, I guess India does not need a scorecard on their commitment to Globalization, Creativity and more - especially when "Humility", "Integrity" scores pretty high on our agenda here (Mr. Raju notwithstanding).

    My 2 Rupees on Creativity is that CEOs more than ever before need a Strategy for Creativity. They need to be able to do that by providing and enabling platforms that can aggregate the creativity of their associates, customers, partners and marketplace communities. Creativity is an individual thing but its real power is in its aggregation and redistribution. Lends well to "Getting closer to Customers" as well.

    I can't think of anything more creative at this stage unless one is talking about CEOs spending more time with De Bono or Roger Von Oech or working with Lego bricks.

  • Chris Reich

    This clearly shows why America's world business dominance is declining.

    First, the 'study' is not a study. It's little more than an opinion poll with some insight into how some CEOs think. But it's not a study of what is needed.

    This is comparable to asking kids what is important for lunch with the majority answering candy and ice cream. It's not meaningful.

    Secondly, putting integrity below anything else is a red flag for the future. I especially don't like to see "creativity" displace integrity. How is creativity defined when displacing integrity? "Let's think of a way to get away with....." Is that creativity?

    There's a different story here. The story is that greed rules when creativity is put at the top and fairness at the bottom.

    FC is a community of creativity, design and thought. I do not think the dinosaurs who put creativity at the top of this poll had the same definition in mind as FC's readers might.

    Try this exercise. Look at each item listed and forget the scores. Just make a list. Now, take the list and put it in order of relationship to character. For example, is creativity or global thinking important to character? No. Is fairness? Yes.

    When you finish ordering this list, I think you'll see clearly, except for integrity, the poll is exactly, and seriously, upside down.

    So why is integrity second and fairness way down the list? Because the respondents knew they were expected to choose integrity. They all think they have have integrity. BP thinks it operates with integrity. Massey Energy thinks it operates with integrity. Goldman Sachs thinks it operates with integrity. RJ Reynolds Tobacco thinks it operates with integrity. Toyota, knowingly concealing a dangerous defect, thinks it operates with integrity. ENRON pleaded that it was operating with integrity.

    An interesting poll, yes. A study? Only if we use it as a warning of what needs to be taught to future leaders---Integrity, Fairness, Sustainability, Leadership (not on the list?). Creativity is rare and can be hired.

    Chris Reich

  • NoahRobischon

    Why is it, do you think, that CEOs would report this about themselves? Perhaps CEOs desire creativity because they us it less often. Integrity, meanwhile, is already an important aspect of their success. That's just a guess - I'm wondering what you think Chris.

  • Chris Reich

    I don't believe integrity is upfront in the minds in the minds of most CEOs. It's there if they are reminded to consider it, like eating more vegetables. They'd like to have integrity as a part of every decision but it gets in the way of the short path to what they want.

    Thus, integrity isn't a first consideration, it's an after thought.

    I would further assert that unless a decision is really egregious, CEOs consider themselves ethical. Kennth Lay went to grave defending his action at ENRON. BP defends their action today. EXXON is still fighting the judgment against it from the Valdez spill.

    I am pro business but I also know business unregulated runs purely on greed. Ethics and profit are not mutually exclusive unless a company chooses them to be so.

    Chris Reich