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5 Traits Of Creative Leaders (And How To Become One)

Becoming a leader takes courage as well as creativity. And creativity takes practice.

5 Traits Of Creative Leaders (And How To Become One)
[Photo: Flickr user Steven Gerner]

Being a leader is difficult. That’s why most of us end up taking direction from others in our professional lives. But the ranks of the self-employed are swelling, hinting that more people are getting comfortable taking the reins in their own hands. And in fact, becoming a leader (even if it's just of yourself) is something anyone who's committed to the task can master. There's no inborn quality that leaders possess. They're ordinary people who decide at one point or another to do extraordinary things.

That doesn't just take courage, it demands creativity—the kind you need to actively nurture and practice. I'm an artist, so I like to think about leadership as an art form. And I’ve found that in order to become a leader, you need to develop similar qualities to an artist—to tap into your creative intelligence in order to keep ahead of the crowd, stay nimble, and inspire those around you to push themselves, too.

Here are five traits the most creative driven leaders—and therefore the best leaders, generally speaking—all possess.

1. They Rattle Cages

Change is a constant. In the natural world, in politics, in business, the only thing that stays the same is the fact that nothing stays the same. Some people wait until they're propelled into leadership positions by forces around them. But the best leaders—from Joan of Arc to Martin Luther King, Jr. to Steve Jobs—first provoke themselves into action, then the people around them. They're constantly imagining new possibilities. They instigate change that they envision even when others don't.

Yet perhaps the only major difference between these great leaders and the average person is that they're willing to do something rather than let circumstances dictate life for them. That typically means rattling cages and shaking up long-standing beliefs and institutions—which is never easy or universally well-received. But that's precisely what makes them great. To rise to your true leadership potential, chances are you'll need to rattle a few cages as well, starting with your own.

2. They Listen To Intuition

There are things we know to be true and things we feel to be true. Thanks to our education, most of us tend to lean on our existing knowledge base to solve problems and make decisions. But the best leaders are those who realize that the things they sense—those possibilities that lie just beyond the realm of the known—hold a special value, too. Listening to them is how real breakthroughs happen.

Most of us have problems balancing logic with intuition. But the truth is that those faculties aren't opposed to one another. In fact, you need to figure out how to get them working together if you're to become a truly creative leader. Intellect without intuition makes for a smart person without impact. Intuition without intellect makes a spontaneous person without direction.

3. They Move Fast

One of the biggest stumbling blocks for anyone trying to accomplish something is perfectionism—the need to get it exactly right before taking the next step. But the best leaders realize that perfection is impossible, and pursuing perfection often stands in the way of what's most important: progress. Leadership requires making consistent strides, no matter how big. And the quicker the stride, the greater the progress.

Don’t buy into the notion that you can take a giant leap if you spend enough time carefully mapping it out. By the time you get done planning, others will have lapped you twice and already taken that leap you spent months mulling over. Opt instead to "just go" and let the sparks fly. You will make mistakes. But in the process, you'll learn quickly and keep moving—refining your skills and igniting new levels of creativity you didn’t know you had.

4. They Have Convictions And Stick To Them

"Don’t ask what the world needs," the great civil rights leader Howard Thurman once said. "Ask yourself what makes you come alive and then go do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive." There’s something compelling about a person with conviction, whether or not you agree with everything he or she represents. But conviction is rare, because in our longing for stability and security, we often make the mistake of looking outside ourselves for direction when we should be looking inside. And over time we can lose sight of who we truly are and what's really important to us.

Conviction can be cultivated, though—and it starts with you individually. While those who live with great conviction can always inspire you, they don't know your passions and beliefs. Only you can ask, "What makes me come alive?" From there, the gaps between who you are and who you can still be will become clear. You might find you need something dramatic like a career change, or the exercise of answering that question might help propel you down the path you’re already on. The key is to find something that you feel you’re meant to do and give yourself to it.

5. They Don't (Only) Do What's Expected Of Them

The ability to come up with new ideas is a defining characteristic of great leaders. They're able to step out of the common view and imagine new possibilities that set the course for others to follow. Each of us has a tremendous capacity for originality—we're each unique, after all—but activating it can be difficult. Why? Because our lives are full of other demands—our jobs, our families—and we spend most of our precious time and energy just trying to keep up.

In order to free your own originality, you need to be willing to stop doing only what’s required and expected of you and start doing the things that only you can do—those ideas and projects you keep shelving until you've got time for them. But the truth is there's never a convenient moment to tackle them. There's never going to come a time when you'll be 100% certain you'll succeed if you do. Get started on those things today and work on them every day thereafter.

Ultimately, the real difference between you and the creative leaders who inspire you is action. You have the innate capacity to develop all the qualities they possess. The key is to start. Start today. Start now. Don’t wait around until life demands something of you—it always will. That’s not what leaders do.

Erik Wahl is the author of the bestselling book Unthink: Rediscover Your Creative Genius. He is an entrepreneur, graffiti artist, and successful speaker who helps people unleash their creativity to achieve superior levels of performance.

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