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More Reasons Creativity Sucks: Creative People Seen as Having Less Leadership Potential

Ever since the days when I was writing Weird Ideas That Work, I have been careful to point out various ways that creative people suffer in comparison to their less imaginative counterparts. My focus has been largely on the differences between doing creative and routine work (see this post on why creativity and innovation suck). Much theory and research suggests a long list, including:

Ever since the days when I was writing Weird Ideas That Work, I have been careful to point out various ways that creative people suffer in comparison to their less imaginative counterparts. My focus has been largely on the differences between doing creative and routine work (see this post on why creativity and innovation suck). Much theory and research suggests a long list, including:

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1. Creativity requires failing most of the time; routine work entails succeeding most of the time. So doing creative means screwing up constantly, while doing routine work means you are usually doing things right and well. As Diego and I like to say, failure sucks but instructs.

2. Creativity involves constant conflict over ideas, although that can be fun when it is done right, even the most healthy groups struggle to avoid having conflict over the best ideas turn very personal and very nasty.

3. Creativity is messy,scary, and inefficient. Routine work is clean, comforting and efficient.

4. Doing creative work right means generating a lot of bad ideas, it also means that most of your good ideas will get killed-off too.

I could go on and on. But the best quote I have ever seen on the probabilities and emotions associated with doing creaitive work is from James March (I quote this in Weird Ideas That Work), quite possibly the most prestigious living organizational theorist. Rumor has it that he has come fairly close to winning the Nobel Prize in Economics once or twice:

“Unfortunately, the gains for imagination are not free. The protections for imagination are indiscriminate. They shield bad ideas as well as good ones — and there are many more of the former than the latter. Most fantasies lead us astray, and most of the consequences of imagination for individuals and individual organizations are disastrous. Most deviants end up on the scrap pile of failed mutations, not as heroes of organizational transformation… . There is, as a result, much that can be viewed as unjust in a system that induces imagination among individuals and individual organizations in order to allow a larger system to choose among alternative experiments. By glorifying imagination, we entice the innocent into unwitting self-destruction (or if you prefer, altruism).”

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I don’t mean to bring you down even further, but a study with more bad news for creativity — actually an academic paper containing three intertwined studies — just came out by Assistant Professor Jennifer Mueller at the University of Pennsylvania. It is called “Recognizing creative leadership: Can creative idea expression negatively relate to perceptions of leadership potential?” The upshot is that people who are seen as more creative are judged by others as having LESS leadership potential than their unimaginative peers UNLESS they are also seen as charismatic.

This bias against creative people is first demonstrated in their study of employees of a company in India who were in jobs where they were expected to do creative work. It was then replicated in a controlled experiment, with about 200 students, half of whom were assigned to be idea generators or “pitchers” and half to be “evaluators.” The pitchers were then divided into two groups. As the researchers, they were asked to either ‘1) prepare a creative (novel and useful) or 2) a useful (but not novel) solution to the following question: “What could an airlines do to obtain more revenue from passengers?”‘

The results are pretty troubling. In short, although the judges saw no significant differences in the usefulness of the ideas generated, and did construe that subjects who were instructed to generate creative ideas did, in fact, come up with more creative ideas than those instructed to come-up with ideas that were not novel, the judges also consistently construed the more creative subjects as having less leadership potential, measured with this 3-item scale: “How much leadership would this applicant exhibit?”, “How much control over the team’s activities would this member exhibit?”, “I think the applicant is an effective leader.” (α = .86).

The bright spot, or perhaps the warning, is that, int he third study, where the “charismatic leader prototype was activated” (this was done by asking judges to list five five characteristics of a charismatic leader), things changed. Here is how the researchers described their findings from this third study: “when the charismatic prototype was activated, participants rated the candidate in the creative idea condition (M = 4.08) as having significantly higher leadership potential than the candidate in the useful idea condition (M = 3.41; t = -3.68, p < .01). Conversely, when the charismatic prototype was not activated, participants rated the candidate in the creative condition (M = 3.08) as having significantly lower leadership potential than the candidate in the useful condition (M = 3.60; t = -2.03, p < .05).”

BNET asked first author Mueller to explain these findings, and I thought she came-up with a pretty good answer:

Muller notes that leaders must create common goals so their groups can get things done. And the clearer goals are, the better they tend to work, which means leaders need to root out uncertainty. One way leaders can do this is to set standards and enforce conformity. But when asked to describe a creative person, words like “quirky,” “nonconformist” and “unfocused” often take their place right alongside “visionary” and “charismatic.” Says Mueller: “The fact is, people don’t just feel positively about creative individuals-they feel ambivalent around them.”‘

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Yes, this is one just paper. But it is done carefully and uses multiple methods. And it is instructive as I do think — and there is evidence to show — that our stereotypes of the hallmarks of creative people do often see at odds with our beliefs of great leaders. In particular, to add to Mueller’s list, creative people are also often seen as inner focused (not just unfocused), inconsistent, and flaky. That is not the boss that most of us want. It is also interesting that charisma seems to be the path to being seen as both creative and having leadership potential. It certainly has worked for the likes of Steve Jobs, Francis Ford Coppola, IDEO’s David Kelley, and Oprah Winfrey.

This research suggests that if you are a creative type, and want to lead, do everything you can to get your boss and other evaluators thinking about charisma — “activate” the charismatic leader prototype by talking about well-known charismatics, and perhaps engaging in actions congruent with the “prototype” of a charismatic person — articulate, inspiring, setting forth an emotionally compelling vision, and touching on themes and stories that provoke energy and passion in others.

On the other hand, there are plenty of successful creatives who have achieved leadership positions who seem to lack at leasst some of these qualities — Mark Zuckerburg, Bill Gates, David Packard, and Bill Hewlett come to mind. And there are still other successful creatives who led wonderful and important lives despite having little if any interest in leading others — Steve Wozniak and Nobel Prize winner Richard Feynman appear to qualify. Indeed, although we need great leaders, it seems to me that — especially at this moment in history — we need creative people even more.

To me, the upshot is that these findings are intriguing and some people may find them useful — especially creatives who are trying to get leadership jobs. But it also strikes me that presenting a false front usually backfires in the end, and perhaps the most important implication is that, if you are in a position to judge and select leaders, keep reminding yourself that you will probably be unfairly biased against creative people — unless you think they are charismatic (or you are just thinking about charisma), in which case you may be giving those creatives too much credit for their leadership potential!

I love a careful and creative study like this one. No it is not perfect or the final word, no study is or can be, but it is pretty damn good. If you want to read the whole thing, here is complete reference, including a link to the PDF:

Jennifer Mueller, Jack Goncalo, Dishan Kamdar (2011), Recognizing creative leadership: Can creative idea expression negatively relate to perceptions of leadership potential?, Journal of Experimental Social Psychology

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Reprinted from Work Matters

Robert I. Sutton, PhD is Professor of Management Science and Engineering at Stanford. His latest book is Good Boss, Bad Boss: How to Be the Best…and Survive the Worst. His previous book is The New York Times bestseller The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t. Follow him at twitter.com/work_matters.

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About the author

Robert Sutton is Professor of Management Science and Engineering at Stanford and a Professor of Organizational Behavior, by courtesy, at the Stanford Graduate School of Business. Sutton studies innovation, leaders and bosses, evidence-based management, the links between knowledge and organizational action, and workplace civility

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