Creative leadership – qualities and attributes

The theme of the Bonington annual retreat for the 2016 cohort was “creative leadership”. Throughout the retreat, we questioned, discussed and explored what creative leadership is, how we define it in higher education institutions, how we can become creative leaders ourselves, and how we can embark on creative leadership across the organisation. Creative leadership has become a necessity to work in the fragile and uncertain higher education environment around us.

Based on our workshop and in my opinion, here are the five qualities/attributes/skills that creative leaders need to have in higher education environments. These are:

Braveness
One of the discussion points during Bonington was whether creative leaders are always brave or rule pushers/breakers. Upon further pondering and reading, I have come to the realisation that this may not necessarily be true. Creative leaders are often better-informed leaders with a self-belief in their own and organisation’s destination. For this reason, they can keep their own and organisation’s focus, take hard decisions, and move forward together with others. They continuously strive to remain informed and instil the same values in their team and organisation. They are more aware of the consequences of the decisions they will make during their journey, making it easier for them to say no to things that disrupt them from reaching their destination.

Passion and balance
I once heard a great speaker and a mentor of mine say:

You don’t work in Higher Education because of the money, you work here for the job stability, work satisfaction, a good pension scheme and most importantly, because you are passionate about Higher Education and how it has the potential to change people’s lives.

I believe in this sentiment quite firmly as higher education has changed my life for the better. The capacity to reflect on what I have achieved because of my education has also continuously strengthened my passion for higher education. While passion and a strong drive towards continuous improvements are necessary, balance in your approach is equally important as a creative leader. You need to be able to evaluate situations both at an overview and detail level at the same time without being bogged down by either. It is an artful skill, something that comes with experience but also with constant self-reflection. In my opinion, this is best achieved by asking yourself the following questions regularly:

* Am I looking at the situation with a positive outlook?
* Am I looking at the situation with the larger picture in mind?
* Am I looking at the situation with the details in mind?
* Am I macro or micro-managing the tasks?
* Am I listening to all points raised from everyone?
* Am I delegating where necessary and taking ownership where necessary?

Think big by thinking small
Creative leaders don’t rely on one big idea. Instead, they develop a culture of generating lots of ideas in the organisation. They work towards improvements in many areas at the same time to gain larger impact. Micro-learning and micro-projects would be an essential part of today’s and tomorrow’s success. Creative leaders would not only be able to keep up with the diversity of micro-projects but would also have a wide-ranging interest to generate new and inspiring ideas. They will encourage others to do the same; they will test those ideas fast and fail or succeed fast too. Agility and micro-improvements would be crucial to success in the future.

Consistency through creativity
An interesting theme that emerged from our discussions was how creativity could help mitigate the negative impact of volatility in the current higher education environment. Creative leaders can contribute to managing change, provide consistency, and introduce stability by thinking outside of the box. They have the capacity to introduce smaller and innovative changes that allow the bigger picture to remain consistent for the organisation. The destination remains the same, the flight path changes and adapts on a regular basis.

Organic vs. fixed approach towards creativity
Another theme of the discussion was the introduction of a culture of creative thinking in the organisation. Creative leaders are keen to introduce a culture of creative thinking and innovation in their organisation. There was a general acceptance by the cohort that to introduce creative thinking; we need a more structured approach. A structured approach can be through the introduction of an environment which facilitates generation of ideas or through formalising the time slots in which creative thinking is encouraged. An informal approach towards this can lead to having team discussions for generation of ideas during an outdoor walk. We experienced first hand how beneficial this can be during the Bonington walk. A more formal model discussed was the Disney method (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Disney_method) which goes through four thinking styles to encourage creativity: Outsiders, Dreamers, Realists, and Critics. Having distinct styles of thinking in separate stages allow ideas to flourish and grow to a level where their potential is clearer to all. This approach is much better at boosting the confidence of people and allowing all ideas to reach a particular stage (it prevents the killing of the seedling before it can stand on its own and flourish). It also ensures early cultural change but may not be sustainable or appropriate in the long run. For creativity to consistently flourish, it should become part of everyone’s thinking. For this to happen, an organic approach towards innovative thinking is needed.

What do you think?

What are your views on this topic? Do you believe there are attributes which are missing here but are essential to the arsenal of a creative leader in higher education? If yes, please let me know.

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