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Leadership Characteristics – A Shift In Requirements?

For the past 20 years, a piece of work often quoted in relation to the required Characteristics of Admired Leaders has been The Leadership Challenge. First released in 1987 by Kouzes and Posner, the book has become one of the best-selling leadership books of all time. As part of their research and ongoing data collection, they ask the question, “What values (or characteristics) do you look for and admire in your leader?” Respondents are asked to select from a list of 20 characteristics, the seven qualities they feel are the most critical for leaders to have.

Over time, across continents and cross culturally, the same four, (and only four) characteristics that have continuously received over 50% of the votes are honesty, forward-looking (visionary), competent, and inspiring. What people look for the most in an admired leader has stayed constant, according to this data, for almost 20 years, and honesty has always been listed as number one.

It is interesting therefore to compare the results of a recent study released by IBM who surveyed 1500 CEOs and published the outcome in a report entitled “Capitalizing on Complexity – Insights from the Global Chief Executive Officer Study“.

The CEOs were asked to prioritize the three most important leadership qualities that were needed in the new economic environment. The results showed there was a widely shared perspective that creativity was the single most important leadership competency for enterprises seeking a path through the complexity of global integration. The top three required competencies were considered to be creativity, integrity and global thinking.

If we were to compare the two sets of data, we can match integrity from the IBM report to honesty in the Kouzes and Posner material, but creativity and global thinking represent a significant shift in the way we see the needs of effective leadership today. In fact, creativity didn’t even feature as one of the top 20 most desired characteristics in the Kouzes and Posner data, and yet in the IBM study, creativity received 60% of the votes as the most important characteristic leaders need to have today.

Creative Leadership is seen as a growing “must have” for those who recognize what it takes to stay ahead of the competition. Creativity breeds innovation, and savvy companies are constantly looking for new ideas to create competitive advantage. It is no longer acceptable to simply do what you already do and just be really good at it. In today’s information age everybody knows what you can do and how you do it. Your competition is looking for ways to disrupt your technology; offer a more price competitive option; offer the next generation of what you have or even something completely different that will make your option obsolete very quickly.

The IBM study goes on to state that CEOs recognize that Creative Leadership will require them to shed some long held beliefs and to create original rather than traditional approaches. They must be ready to upset the status quo even if it is successful. They must equip their entire organization to be a catalyst for creativity. For most leadership teams, this requires an entirely new set of capabilities.

So how can we help people to become good Creative Leaders? How can leadership teams learn this new set of capabilities? It is not a case of leaders being more creative themselves. It is more a need for them to recognize how to create a culture of innovation within their teams whereby creativity is encouraged to thrive and grow into real time ideas that can be put into practice.

A good place to begin is by recognizing and overcoming three big myths of innovation:

  1. Innovation is primarily the role of the lone genius, or charismatic entrepreneur.
    Not so. Most innovations occur as the result of teamwork, not the individual effort. Additionally, in the best organizations, innovation is everyone’s business.
  2. Most valuable innovation happens in the laboratory.
    Not so. Innovation opportunities are everywhere within organizations (services, products, systems, processes, structures, models).
  3. Innovation requires extraordinary creative and visionary talents.
    Not so. The reality is that people have a wide range of gifts and talents that can be accessed to create innovations.

Once we have recognized that innovation and creativity is everywhere, leaders can make a significant difference in a team’s innovation effectiveness by focusing on three things: fostering Virtuosity, injecting Creative Tension, and creating an environment of Serious Play.


How do you bring out the talents and best gifts of all team members? People have an abundance of innovation gifts and talents that are available (with good Creative Leadership) for team projects. Leaders can be instrumental in bringing out the best in others by constantly seeking out, identifying and fostering these talents. Some ideas to try:

  • See people at their best.
  • Listen extraordinarily carefully to hear what team members love to do.
  • Challenge people to work outside of their expertise.
  • Stop being and thinking you are the smartest, most talented person on the team.
  • Find ways to reorganize and utilize individual talents.
  • Find out what team members excel at when not at work.
  • Encourage people to bring their best game to the team’s work.

Creative Tension

Traditionally, managers have seen their role as taking tension out of the system. Creativity and innovation needs tension to flourish. By introducing a healthy Creative Tension into the team, leaders can motivate team members to challenge the status quo, generate new possibilities and embrace change as inevitable. You need to confront team members to think differently, try new ideas and reach for their highest aspirations. Change the status quo in the team yourself by:

  • Changing everyone’s role.
  • Rewarding wild ideas.
  • Making bold public promises on behalf of the team.
  • Introducing disruptive elements.
  • Confronting team members with their highest aspirations.
  • Bringing in customers for a day.

Serious Play

Leaders can help to foster creativity by nurturing an environment of what can be termed Serious Play, an environment where innovation and change are encouraged. This can help teams recognize how to grow their ideas from thoughts to implementation and, ultimately, real results.

Consider these key elements of Serious Play and create an innovative working environment by:

  • Stimulus. Bring stimulating venues, objects, processes, etc. into the team environment to help team members tap into the human brain’s natural ability to make associations, connections and intuitive leaps.
  • Prototyping. Keep ideas alive and in the organization’s consciousness by constantly creating working models, images, illustrations, etc.
  • Selling. Bring seriousness to an innovation by selling it to organizational constituents.

Try a few of these ideas, and you may find that Creative Leadership is not just the domain of the R & D department. It can be very rewarding both for you and your organization.

Don’t forget to leave your comments below

Bryn Meredith is Vice President, Client Services at Bluepoint Leadership Development. He can be reached by email.