Ken Robinson On The Principles Of Creative Leadership

"Creativity is not some exotic, optional extra," says the author of Out of Minds: Learning to be Creative. "It's a strategic issue."

Sir Ken Robinson is among the world's elite thinkers when it comes to creativity and innovation. The author of Out of Minds: Learning to be Creative, a 10th anniversary edition of which was published in March, and The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything, Robinson has dedicated much of his professional life to helping governments, educational systems and businesses understand that creativity is not a fanciful luxury.

"Creativity is not some exotic, optional extra. It's a strategic issue," said Robinson while in Cannes where he was invited to speak about the necessity for creativity in innovation. "So what people are faced with is having to think very different about how to run organizations."

Here Robinson talks about making creativity a priority, his disdain for the term creative industries, leadership from the middle, and why in times of economic crisis creativity is an urgent imperative.

I've always believed that we all have these immense natural talents--we don't all know what they are and we have to discover them. Very often organizations are inflexible because there is too little communication between functions; they are too segregated. A lot of people in organizations are disengaged--there's a lot of research to show that. They turn part of themselves off when they get to work.

There was a report published in the fall by IBM called Capitalizing on Complexity. It was based on a survey of 3,000 CEOs of for-profit companies, non-profits, social entrepreneurship and public sectors from around the world asking what's on their minds. What was interesting about it was that this year the CEOs said they had three overall priorities. The first priority was running organizations that can respond to complexity because the world is getting more complex every day. Second was how to run organizations that are adaptable and resilient to these changes. But the top priority was how to promote creativity in organizations. The answer to these three priorities of complexity is to think differently about people and to reposition the role of leadership.

John Chambers, chairman and CEO at Cicso, describes how he's gone from leading from the front to leading from the middle of the organization in my book Out of Our Minds. Cisco has a much more distributed and active management and leadership so that it can be more responsive; it's more cellular.

People in different tiers of the organization are given much more discretion and freedom to take initiatives. There's much more collaboration and communication between them. Rather than the typical form of management--command and control--people at Cisco are coming to him with proposals and getting a proper hearing rather than it all coming from the top down. If you want innovation and creativity, you have to tap into people's senses and their perceptions and ideas and energies and passions.

The role of a creative leader is not to have all the ideas; it's to create a culture where everyone can have ideas and feel that they're valued. So it's much more about creating climates. I think it's a big shift for a lot of people.

I've never been very comfortable with the expression creative industries. It came about around 15 years ago and it had a purpose at the time--it was to draw attention to these other sorts of businesses whose stock and trade were ideas. The trouble with the idea of the creative industries is that it, of course, suggests that there are non-creative industries as a consequence. Well, I'm trying to think of what they would be. If you're running and engineering or finance company, all companies depend on ideas and ingenuity. I think the principles of creative leadership apply everywhere, whether it's an advertising company or whether you're running a hospital.

Someone asked me recently what single piece of advice would you give people who wanted to become more creative. I said it would be to have confidence that you can be because often people lack confidence because they can't do something and therefore assume that they're incapable of it. There's a very big difference between not having learned to do something and being incapable. There's a point where most people can't drive cars, but they don't think that they're incapable of it. I can't play the piano but I'm not incapable of it; I just haven't done it.

Creativity is the process of having original ideas that have value. It is a process; it's not random. Part of what I get people to think about is, we all occasionally have a good idea, but if you're running a business or a school or university, you don't want to have the occasional good idea, you want to have them all the time, routinely, and have a system and way of doing it.

I think forces such as extreme financial pressure make being creative more urgent. Being creative in business terms isn't some sort of recreational pursuit, of just keeping the troops happy. It's about being creative to a purpose. The purpose in a company is to improve the company's impact and performance. Therefore any creative strategy is about either improving products and services or coming up with new possibilities or opportunities. If you're running a software company what you're trying to do is create an atmosphere where people are developing the ideas that will become the leading edge of the company's development.

I remember when I was running the national commission on creativity, education and the economy in the U.K., the Secretary of State there said, "We're very committed to creativity in education but we've got to get literacy and numeracy right first." And I said, this is just a basic misunderstanding. It's like saying we're going to bake a cake and if it works out, then we'll put the eggs in. That's not how it works. If you want people to be literate, you have to get them passionate about reading and that's a creative job. To think of it as an afterthought or in conflict of the core purposes, is a misconception of what creativity is. Creative leaders get that. And if they don't they will.

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6 Comments

  • Cristi V. Andrei

    Sir Ken Robinson has the same assumption as some of the educated men from the Enlightenment, historical time he thinks is gone for good - people have a qualitative homogeneous potential, which needs only a favourable environment to have it out.It is enough to say that this stimulating 'climate' has to be created, in order that everyone could do its best. But we can't be good at everything (even then we would have the time to try all things we want to) and we can't have the same level of achievement. 
    It is important to encourage divergent and critical thinking, but without raising hopes beyond the limits. As a teacher, I don't know where the limits of my students are, I act as their partner, more than a tutor, in their education (all-life-a-student mentality), arising their self-respect and self-confidence, but sure there are limits.  There are also the bounds of the economical-political patterns, not so different from the past - all 'creative leadership' is more or less, at least at  governmental level and in major companies, driven by 'complexities' of the present confrontation for resources, by a short-sighted competition for profit (at core, just as in the 'old days') and for stability (social order, the very reason of the mass educational system, and that is why history is a curricular discipline so sensitive to critical thinking and creativity as educational principles, favoring them more as scholastic props from some sort of narrow propaganda).

  • Cristi V. Andrei

    Sir Ken Robinson has the same assumption as some of the educated men from the Enlightenment, historical time he thinks is gone for good - people have a qualitative homogeneous potential, which needs only a favourable environment to haveit out. It is enough to say that this stimulating 'climate' has tobe created, in order that everyone could do its best. But we can't be good at everything (even then we would have the time to try all things we want to do) and we can't have the same level of achievement. It is important to encourage divergent and critical thinking, but without raising hopes beyond the limits. As a teacher, I don't know where the limitsof my students are, I act as their partner, more than a tutor, intheir education (all-life-a-student mentality), arising their self-respect and self-confidence, but sure there are limits.  There are also the bounds of the economical-political patterns, not so different from the past - all 'creative leadership' is more or less, at least at  governmental level and in major companies, driven by 'complexities' of the present confrontation forresources, by a short-sighted competition for profit (at core,just in the 'old days') and for stability (social order, the very reason of the mass educational system, and that is why history is a curricular discipline so sensitive to critical thinking and creativity as educational principles, favoring them moreas scholastic props from some sort of narrow propaganda).

  • Lynn Harris

    I think it's important to recognize the difference between 'creativity' - having good new ideas of value, and 'creating' - bringing something new into existence that wasn't there before. I find lots of people have good ideas, but much fewer create something of value from them.

  • Stanley bray

    I've learned to not look for solutions, but look for opportunities for innovation. Creativity happens all the time, all around us. Thanks for the insight. I can't wait to read the book,

  • Leon Benjamin

    The future of a company is less about the nature of its issues and more about it's capacity to invent social structures able to solve them.  A word to the wise.  Decentralise!

  • Josephine Collins

    Very inspiring , people create all the time without knowing it and then go around thinking they're not creative or let others tell them so, on some level your very existence is your creation, doing so consciously is what needs to happen next and yes , the school system is a good place to start.