Creative Leadership – Shaping complex challenges creatively

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Creative Leadership – Shaping complex challenges creatively
From the Edited Volume
Edited By:
Professor John Metselaar


“We live in a moment where individual creativity and continuous innovation are essential. We should be thinking in terms of ‘return on inspiration.” – Natascia Radice, CMO, TEDxDubai (Sinar et al., 2015: 26)

Today companies face a complex world where industry boundaries are blurring, customers have more power, and the war for talent is intensifying. IBM’s global study of more than 1500 CEOs in 2010, describes the challenge to deal with this accelerating complexity, coupled with most volatile situations and changing contexts. In order to deal with the situation, the study clearly highlighted the need for leaders to foster creativity and innovation in organizations. In IBM’s latest study in 2015, top executives claimed that disruptive innovations have become standard practice in most industries, and that companies need collaborative skills to access outside sources for creative ideas and innovations. Creativity and innovation are thus needed to tackle the new market situation in which old ways of working are no longer viable. Creativity is identified as a vital resource to handle ambiguity and to balance the demand of customers, markets and society, in novel and more flexible ways. In terms of creativity and innovation, this new situation calls for action in two dimensions: a new type of innovative leadership as well as leadership of creativity and innovation. The former consists of exploring new and innovative ways of leading organizations, whereas the latter entails shaping the organizational conditions where people are able to produce creative solutions (Horth and Buchner, 2014).

The World Economic Forum published “The Future of Jobs” in 2016. The report looks at employment, skills and workforce strategy for the future. Chief human resources and strategy officers from leading global employers gave their views on what the current shifts in society imply for employment, skills and recruitment across industries and geographies. One of the top three future skills for employees in the ranking was creativity. With the avalanche of new products, new technologies and new ways of working, employees have to become more creative in order to benefit from these changes. Therefore, we see that creativity as resource affects all organizational levels. But what is creativity? How do we act as a creative person? What makes an organisation a creative one? These questions are not answered by both studies. Today’s complex challenges need a different way of thinking, an approach beyond tools and techniques. To step into the role of a creative leader we have to take authorship. We have to think and act more like artists, driven by a vision and a sense for the creative flow. Getting access to the creative spark we can look at situations differently and transform them.

The artist Paul Klee called that attitude „Artistic Thinking“. Paul Cézanne, one of the pioneers of twenty-century art, invented the modern understanding of composition. Composition signifies the arrangement of the elements or the components in an artwork. In a sense, it is the organization of the elements of art, whether it is visual art, music or literature. Cézanne developed a radical new kind of landscape art. The artist established a process to contemplate and to register the „information“ of nature first, without any judgement. Somehow he „looked through“ the landscape, waited what emerged as visual phenomenon and arranged the abstract structures, he perceived. Thus he developed the concept of a „construction plan“ of nature, way before such an idea became a sciences research field, later the 20th century.

Cézanne approach can be taken as a blueprint how organizations can handle complexity. It needs time to discover the patterns. Artistic thinking opens up for complexity and takes into account the various dimensions of an observed situation. Thus we become able to sketch out what we see, as a clear and meaningful picture. In other words, we do creative work.

The Dimensions of Creative Leadership

How can we get closer to the core creativity and creative work within organizations? Management scholars, such as Henry Mintzberg (Mintzberg & Sacks, 2004) and Gary Hamel, suggest that management has much to do with art, and that much of the innovations happen outside the mainstream. Therefore, there is great value in looking to the arts to find models of creativity and creative leadership. In this article, we look at specific artworks and artists to describe four dimensions of creative leadership. These dimensions are fundamental for artistic work and explain the mind-set of creative leadership. The four dimensions are:

  1. Mastering complexity
  2. Orchestrating creativity
  3. Emotional commitment for change
  4. Anchoring organizations in society

Mastering Complexity – Diego Velasquez („Las Meninas“)

Figure 2.1. Diego Velázquez, Las Meninas 1656

A spectacular representation of a complex situation is the painting „Las Meninas“ of the Spanish court painter Diego Velasquez. The masterpiece was created in 1656. If we look at the composition, first, we see that the space of the painting is divided in an upper and lower part. The upper part introduces us to the overall space – the room, in which the scene is presented. We see main parts of the courtly decor and architecture, which sets the equivalent tone. The lower part offers a full view of all acting figures, grouped very much like on a stage. Velasquez presents most prominently, in the centre of the painting, the daughter of the royal couple Philipp IV and his wife Maria Anna. Two court ladies stay right and left to her. On the right side we see a dwarf, a child, two others persons and a dog. On the left side we see Velasquez himself. Curiously, he doesn’t look at the group he paints. Instead he turns his gaze out of the picture. Somehow it looks like that he establishes a direct eye contact with us as viewer. In the background we see the Lord Stuart Jose Nieto, responsible for the court etiquette. He stands in the open door, which draws the attention to the background of the painting. His presence in the painting is an indication that the royal couple is present. And here the mystery of the painting starts. The whole scene appears like stopped, paused in time. Where is the royal couple, to which all persons in the painting are looking at? Is what we see in the background a picture or a mirror? And, if it would be a mirror the royal couple would stand in the very place where we are as viewer, which is outside the picture.

Velasquez composition is unique and complex. It has tremendous implications for us as viewer. Do we follow the idea of a mirror and the presence of the royal couple outside the painting, somehow we identify slowly with that position. The questions, in which reality we are in – what role do we play, is difficult to answer, after a while. Are we still the observer or are we observed and be so part of the painting? The artwork becomes even more mysterious when we ask: what actually does Velasquez paint? Is it the royal couple or the scene left to him and how does he integrate himself into the composition? What seems as a simple representation, a typical courtly situation, turns out to be a complex arrangement that evades a simple interpretation. Depending on the viewpoint we choose, the observation leads us to different options to “read” the painting.

The way to decode and understand the painting is an intensive controversy amongst experts. It has lasted for more than 350 years. Four major interpretational theses exist. The most prominent one is that what we see a mirror in the background, in which the royal couple is visible. However that leads to the dilemma describes previously, to read the painting in a coherent way, but at the same time it makes the magic of the artwork. The representation thesis of the philosopher Foucault describes the artwork as a sociological portrait of the Spanish court in the 17th century. Velasquez work shows the tight dependencies of the court society. The third one is the mirror image thesis, developed by Ulrich Asemissen in 1981. It is a more technical viewpoint to explain the mystery of the painting by a composition trick. The argument is that all the figures look into a big mirror and the mirror image is what was painted actually. The most recent thesis, offered by the chief conservator of the Prado Mena Marques in 1981, argues that the painting is a combination of older and newer composition parts.

All expert viewpoints have their arguments. However, the expert view has the risk to miss important points in dealing with the imagery and the complex structure of the composition. If we want to appreciate the artwork by ourselves, a good approach is to first lay side by side a variety of observations and interpretations, then to evaluate them and finally to draw conclusions. In other words, it is to be creative throughout the process of perception and visual experience to build your own point of view.

However, we have to be acknowledge that what seems true for us might not be true for others. The complex cosmos of Velasquez „Las Meninas“ shows us how important it is to initially accept complexity and to open up for a broad range of different perspectives. When we start having a dialogue about our own perceptions, without passing judgement, we are able to expand our opinion and build a broader understanding of a situation.

What does that mean for organizations? How can we create a coherent perspective in a world that generates an abundance of information through, among other things, technology? How can we master complexity? In a good artwork all visual elements, like colours, forms and figures, are matched in a way that an organizational principle becomes tangible. That makes a good composition. What if we handled information in organizations the same way? If we perceive them, read them und organize them, very much like visual elements. Therefore, in order to perceive precisely and evaluate a specific situation, we need a frame, an appropriate direction of observation and a leading question. This is the first step of gathering focused information. As a fundamental attitude we should tackle impartially the situation at hand and try to open up for the experience of the new as unlimited as possible. Crucial is the precise observation, listening, the ability to be surprised and a learning attitude. To comprehend a specific situation in the entrepreneurial context, it is most important to search for a variety of perspectives and in order to develop different viewpoints.

Mastering complexity doesn’t mean at all to take a too early direction and simplify things to quickly. There are organizational situations, which are innately complex. However, collecting information, experience, observations and ideas is the very beginning and leads almost inevitably to new insights. How the new emerges out of that process is a question how these insights will be orchestrated and combined to a new concept.

Orchestrating Creativity – Miles Davis („Bitches Brew“)

Figure 2.2. Miles Davis (Source: Miles Davis, drawing by Jörg Reckhenrich)

Orchestrating creativity is the ability to structure the flow of creative ideas, until a composition, as tangible artwork, emerge. We may think that structure and flow are a contradiction in the creative process. Does creativity need total freedom or is it a myth? In fact, the creative process needs a good portion of a frame. Often an artistic experience is, that creativity unfolds its real power through the tension of a clear setting and a free artistic movement. The story of Miles Davis and the production of the album “Bitches Brew” shows how a tight composition setting and the free flow of musical styles, lead to an innovation in jazz music.

Miles Davis is regarded as one of the most influential and innovative musicians of the 20th century. He together with his musicians were leading in the renewal of the jazz genre several times throughout his career. Released in 1959, his album “Kind of Blue” has sold more than 20 million copies and is arguably the best-selling jazz album in history. Miles Davis had a philosophy of always experimenting with new musical ideas and technological advancements. In August 1969, he went together with the best Jazz musicians in that time, amongst them Chick Corea, John McLaughlin and Joe Zawinul, to record another legendary album “Bitches Brew”.

The recording setting was new in all aspects. The sound engineer Teo Macero played an important role. Miles Davis let him record the whole studio session. None of the musicians was interrupted while playing. Miles Davis provided them with a very broad musical frame. It was just one single chord. Every musician was free to improvise on this collective musical ground. It was enough to hold the music together. Miles Davis said: “We got started and I began to lead the musicians almost like a conductor; the music grew and became increasingly better”. Contrary to standard studio recordings, the whole session became a spontaneous and creative process. Other musicians like John Coltrane had tried to work with the concept of collective improvisation before without success. Miles Davis succeeded to arrange the musicians in a way that they were able to unfold their full creative potential. The arc of suspense of a clear pre-setting and free play provided a safe frame. Each musician could contribute with his own unique quality. An original sound and new musical direction was created which did not exist before.

Artists try to create new realities. They search for gaps to set new standards through their work. They are trained to pick up impulses and ideas from very different directions in order to transform them into a new artwork. That is an artistic strategy that weaves planning and improvisation closely together. Improvisation thrives on developing ideas fast and discarding those that do not work. That is the core of all creative work. It must be mastered by organizations as well. Organizations need the ability to improvise, to move forward with quick and simple steps in order to respond flexibly and to find niches, in fast changing market environments. Similarly, leaders’ task is to orchestrate the different influences and ideas into a new reality for their organization.

Based on the success of Miles Davis, to reach a different level of creative ability, leaders should give collaborative work a new quality. The organizational frame and the free space must be organized with skill and it must be played well. Too much determination interrupts the creative flow, too little determination does not lead to results. A potentially useful model is that leaders perceive themselves more as arrangers of creative potential, rather than dictating and handing over tasks to “solo players”.

Therefore, two aspects must be considered when it comes to orchestrating creativity successfully in the organizational context. First, it needs a structural anchor. Organizations need a “stage” on which creative thinking can unfold. This stage consists of specific processes, an inspiring workspace and formats to play creative processes. Second, the creative interaction must be enacted successfully on that stage. Orchestrating creativity needs experience and a sense for the process and its dramaturgy. Inspiration, appreciation, acceptance and learning from failure, motivation with intellectual challenges are the ingredients. These are necessary attitudes with which leaders fuel the process. To level with employees (the musicians) leaders should be on stage as part of the group. However, the role is not that of a conventional director giving advice and direction. It is more the role of a facilitator, who picks up impulses and first glimpse of ideas, mirrors them back and transforms them. In that light orchestrating of creativity can be seen as a quality, emerging out of the group, through a series of collective activities. Thus creative work can unfold on many organizational levels.

The aim of any creative process is push for implementation. In this respect creative work provokes change. Hence the success of implementation of the creative process depends on how the organization responds. Often the key to get the “buy in” from the organisation and its stakeholders for novelty and original ideas is emotional persuasion. Here an appropriate storyline must be developed.

Emotional Commitment for Change – Pablo Picasso („Guernica“)

Figure 2.3. Picasso, Guernica 1937 (Source: Guernica, drawing by Jörg Reckhenrich)

One of the major issues with change is the way we handle the transformation from the emotional side. Our ability to give a changing situation a direction depends a lot on the images that we are able to find for the situation. Images capture complexity. They generate a focus, set an anchor and provide us with guidance. Such images, if they are strong enough and capture the nerve of a situation, can become a part of our collective memory. A remarkable example is the picture „Guernica“ painted by Pablo Picasso.

The topic of the painting is the destruction of the town Guernica by the German air squadron Legion Condor, in 1937. The incident marks the beginning of a war with terroristic instruments, which had not been done before with such cruelty. Shortly before the disaster Picasso had been invited to create a major project for the Spanish pavilion at the world exhibition in Paris. When he heard about the bombardment of Guernica, he let go from his initial idea for an artwork about the topic „painter and his model“ and took position: „It is my desire to remind you that I was always convinced and still I am, that an artist who lives and works with spiritual values, cannot remain indefinite in a situation in which the highest values of humanity and civilization are at stake“, Picasso December 1937.

Through the artwork Picasso shows the Apocalypse, the trauma of modern war, in all its dimensions. Nothing and no one is excluded. Picasso developed a very unusual composition. The visitors of the pavilion entered the room from the right side, where they were immediately confronted with the full seize of the painting. As directly as the disaster hit Guernica, the picture starts with a direct moment of shock. A figure rips the arms upwards to the sky. Then an ensemble of figures and fragments of objects, composed as triangle, directs the viewer to the centre of the painting. In the centre all forms of order disintegrate. The longer we look at the painting, the more it collapses into chaos. The left side of the composition ends abruptly. We see a bull turning his head away, through which Picasso wanted to express the brutality of the situation. Very soon the artwork became an icon and a statement against the war. In 1944 a German soldier saw „Guernica“ and asked Picasso: „Did you do that“? The answer of the artist is legendary: „No it was you“! In 1985 a copy of the painting was hang up permanently in the entrance area of the United Nations Security Council, as a memorial against war and terror. In its description of human disaster, „Guernica“ is still a modern painting and in respect to today’s war zones, it is more current than ever.

It is hard to escape the impact of the artwork. The following story shows what kind of charisma Guernica still has. In 2003 the American foreign minister Collin Powell organized a press conference about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, in the building of the UN Security Council. The meeting room was close to Picasso’s artwork. Collin Powell wanted to present photos of potential deposits of those weapons to journalists. He was afraid that Guernica with its strong charisma would completely question the impact of his photos. He seems to have assessed the effect of the artwork and its history correctly. The artwork became an obstacle and he let it impose. That led to an outcry not only in the art world. „Guernica“ was touching and it still moves the world. It shows how a historical turning point was transformed and charged emotionally by a piece of art. It offers us as viewers an opportunity how to deal with that story.

Regarding transformation and change, organizations have to balance two directions. Firstly, the purpose of and need for change must be made clear. An inventory of facts, figures and data provides a basis for it. But in order to create the necessary force and momentum, a transformation requires an emotional level. It needs a dramaturgy in order to create accountability. Leaders should understand themselves as artists, initiators and storytellers for the transformational act, which happens on the organizational stage. Artists translate how they see the world, into a picture, a book, music, movement, or a film work. Unlike artists, the creative area of leaders is the space of dialogue with all stakeholders. They must create images, which have the emotional potential to carry organizations through the transformation.

Four dimensions must be taken into account to create emotional commitment towards change.

  1. The truth of the author

The selection of images, which are used for the storyline, should mirror the own experience in detail. To offer such pictures about the own search and questions regarding the transformational situation let the audience open up for the situation. To dare vulnerability can lead directly to a strong connection with the audience. Such openness needs backing in the culture of the organization, which must acknowledge such an attitude.

  1. The truth to the audience

Good storytellers want to connect closely with the audience. Images can develop an emotional relationship. Further those images create a dramaturgical tension and should bring the story to the point. Leaders should listen how the image language unfolds its potential. If images match the expectations and questions of the audience, a lively contact emerges naturally.

  1. Truth to the moment

A good selection of images can unfold energy and momentum. But the situation must be handled carefully if images are used too often. For instance, for a road show which supports a major transformation, images can be overused and lose their effect. To rethink how to use them in a different way, when and how, can bring in a new twist and freshness.

  1. Truth of the statement

Every image, whether it is embedded in fables, children’s stories, films or corporate stories, aims to provide a message. Therefore, images must be integrated into the storyline, that values, attitudes and concern of the author are recognized. For the selection of images, it is advisable not only to chose compelling ones, first of all they must be credible. A too marketing related picture could destroy a sincere statement very easily.

Guernica as picture mirrors theses dimensions. Picasso developed an artwork out of a deep personal concern. He was able to transform a situation, which is nearly impossible to imagine and hard to bear, into a picture we can start to look at and so to understand the situation. Picasso was able to anchor deeply the human, political and moral aspects of Guernica in the collective memory of our society. In that light, the leader is the protagonist, the creative shaper of transformative situations in organizations. But in addition to finding the appropriate pictures, which create emotional connections, a leader must develop an extended image of the organization, to answer the question how the organization is anchored in society.

Anchoring Organizations in Society – Joseph Beuys („Art into Society“)

Figure 2.4. Joseph Beuys (Source: Beuys, drawing by Jörg Reckhenrich)

In the processes of globalization and digitalization organizations have to deal with a more critical observation of their business activities. More than ever before, organizations have to ask what kind of contribution to society they offer and they have to argue for their position with their stakeholders. Anchoring organizations in society goes far beyond the classical discussion about CSR activities in companies. How do services or products help to improve social situations and challenges in society as a whole, is the leading question.

The artist Joseph Beuys asked how art helps to improve society and put that question in the very centre of his work. He declared provocatively that creativity is the genuine social capital and not money. Thereby he developed the extended understanding of art (Erweiterter Kunstbegriff). He stated: „Every human being is an artist“ and argued creative thinking for all social areas.

In 1961 Joseph Beuys was appointed professor for monumental sculpture at the academy in Düsseldorf. He started to expand the definition of art towards social issues and he questioned the classical understanding of art. He saw society as a sculpture and the social challenges in his time as the new field of work for artists. He established through the term he coined – the extended understanding of art and the idea of the social sculpture – a new comprehension of creative work. He applied that approach to various areas of society, such as education, politics and economy. He emphasized that creativity is the core of all human productivity: „Art is the actual capital by which we think through the requirements of society and transform them to a higher level, while using our creative ability“. The artist had painful experience with misguided creativity during World War II when he served as a military pilot. He was very aware that creative thinking must go along with deep ethical and moral questions.

Beuys transferred consequently his concept – artistic work is work in the society – in the installation „Guidelines for a new Society“ (Richtkräfte für eine neue Gesellschaft). In 1974 he was invited by the ICA institute London to contribute to the exhibition “Art into Society – Society into Art“. Before the exhibition he collected black boards as material for the installation. During the exhibition he had an on-going dialogue with the visitors about art, creativity, cultural and political aspects, in order to renew society. Beuys used the black boards and wrote down keywords and drawings, to illustrate the dialog. If the black board was full he threw it on the ground. The artist called that a „Throw Performance“ and created an impressive statement: Ideas and insights, the mental work of the dialogue, create a new ground. They are material and mental foundation in order to think constructively about all questions to rethink society. „Ideas are reality, thinking is sculpture, the most originated creative products are our thoughts“, said Beuys. The installation „Guidelines for a new Society“ shows that he understood dialogue as the core of creative work in society.

To anchor an organization more deeply into society, it must understand business as a social sculpture. It needs the creative work, the dialogue with all stakeholders, to find the appropriate approach for an effective contribution. This process is about building relationships, openness for others and unusual perspectives of the stakeholder community. Such a search process should courageously explore the entrepreneurial direction and responsibility as well as provide answers to the question: where do we have to go to, in order to connect better with society.

Dialogue is an effective instrument to discover the purpose of an organization. To do so, organizations must find and acknowledge the values, which are beyond the company’s products, services or operations. The leading questions are: how can we relate to the needs of society? and what is our contribution? Change in society and organizations should be seen not as a linear progression of one status to another, but rather as an interaction of humans and social systems as an ever-changing pattern. In order to get in touch with the stakeholders and to lead the dialogue, it is necessary to create time for exploration and a stage.

The impact for organizations is clear. On such a stage leaders are actors and directors, they are at the same time both a part of the game and leading that game. The challenge is to lead the dialogue that results in the claim of how the organization anchors itself in society. The task of the leader is to induce an image for that and to empower the organization to transfer the claim on all its dimensions to the daily work. The anchor and critical success factor for leaders is personal credibility. They must act courageously and take the risk to enact that role, not only towards the organization but also towards society. Anchoring organizations in society is nothing less than to shape and empower the license to operate a company. That is the challenging and creative situation for leaders, which they have to manage.

In the view of Beuys, all our thinking, all our actions and the way we shape our lives, was a process of art. We have to adapt to transformations by shaping them proactively. Creative thinking helps us to open the eyes and realize, that we not moving forward towards a given target, we are residing at the target and change with it. This view challenges our common understanding about leadership, which we have to rethink. The provocative point of this view is that creativity and creative leadership do not aim to primarily develop new products. On the contrary, creative leadership aims to improve and shape the social space as an on-going process. Leaders must welcome the social arena.


Creative Leadership includes creative thinking, a specific attitude and organization of processes. The four dimensions of creative leadership should not be seen as single-minded tools. In fact, they are elements of a process where the playful connections of the elements create the results. Thorough that process creative power is unfolded. In the end, business is about getting results and that is equally true in art. Creative Leadership aims for transformation of entrepreneurial efforts. The four dimensions of creative leadership provide a valuable framework for those efforts.

To sum up, the first dimension tackles complexity. If we want to master complexity, we have to collect a variety of information and ideas. Then, we can create direction and perspective. The second dimension deals with orchestrating creativity. The complex information and ideas should lead to unknown territories, not to more of the same. This step needs courage for all people involved in the process. Experimental settings can help to inspire each other in order to create something novel. When a breakthrough occurs, it must be made tangible. We have to feel, sense and breathe it. It needs translation, dialogue and an image to convince others and to create momentum. We have to unfold the landscape of the new situation. This is the third dimension. Finally, the fourth dimension of creative leadership is to examine what we created and to anchor it in a broad sense, by looking through the lens of the social context. Who are the key stakeholders, who will help and how, are the critical questions. It is a risky step to go. Creative leaders have the attitude of an artist. The challenge of the creative process, whether it is art or leading an organization, is to design and discard ideas, concepts and solutions, until quality, clarity and simplicity, the important characteristics of any good work of art, emerges.


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