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Is creativity a trait or talent?

Creative leaders are made, not born.


No, we didn’t get that backwards. In our work within organizations, we often solicit votes on the most creative people our participants can imagine, either living or dead. The lack of variety we receive can sometimes be disheartening: Steve Jobs, Elon Musk, John Lennon. We can’t argue - these are some truly creative leaders. But, we wish we could receive responses that evoke more familiarity and less celebrity: “my peers,” “my boss,” or even “me.”


Popular culture gives us Don Draper, the unapologetically daring ad executive brimming with ideas. Or Dr. House, the cynical genius who experiences frequent “light bulb moments” of creative inspiration as he solves bizarre medical mysteries.


But, in truth, developing your own creative talent and supporting the creative potential of others is more widely attainable than commonly believed. In short, it’s not so much about who you are, but rather what you do that largely determines your capacity to be a creative leader.


Looking at creativity at an individual level, research suggests that intelligence is not a predictor of creativity beyond a minimum threshold. And while some personality traits predict creative performance, the influence of personality is mediated by individual effort and devotion toward creative tasks. For example, individuals who demonstrate a willingness to embrace uncertainty outperform their peers who are less tolerant of ambiguity.


And if you are waiting for a “light bulb moment” to strike – that moment when you or your team are suddenly struck by a perfect, brilliant creative idea – you are likely to be disappointed. Making creative progress requires a true investment of time, effort, and persistence in the face of often-frequent setbacks. If you are witnessing someone else’s great creative work, you should bear in mind you are likely looking at the ultimate result of multiple failed attempts rather than an idea that emerged pristine from the depths of a creative mind. For instance, consider Airbnb, the $25 billion company that revolutionized the travel industry…only after its founders bounced back after multiple failures, and at one point resorted to selling cereal to stay afloat.


Airbnb's co-founders raised money by selling novelty cereal in the 2008 presidential election season.

Or consider Jordan Peele, first-time writer and director of the movie “Get Out,” who won an Oscar for his work and became the first African-American writer-director with a $100 million film debut. In his Oscar’s acceptance speech he admitted, “I stopped writing this movie about twenty times because I thought it wasn’t going to work. I thought it was impossible. I thought no one would ever make this movie. But I kept coming back to it.”


If you are waiting for that "light bulb moment," you are likely to be disappointed.


Of course, not all creative pursuits need to be so grand as founding a major tech startup or directing a blockbuster movie.  Even strategies as simple as completing multiple drafts of your next presentation, or shaping a creative idea by working with individuals with diverse viewpoints can improve the quality and creativity of your finished product. Nonetheless, these examples highlight not only the profound impact that can be made when we do not give up on creative ideas despite failed attempts, but also serve as an important reminder in creative leadership. Allowing mistakes is a necessary condition of driving innovation.

At Basil, we embrace the mindset that creative leadership can be developed much like many other leadership skills, through learning and the reinforcement of specific behaviors. And, just like the development of other skills, cultivating your creative ability and encouraging creativity in others takes committed effort and patience.


Have your own examples of embracing creative leadership or strategies you’ve adopted to cultivate your creative talent? We’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

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