The Importance of Creativity for Business Success

Dr. Craig von BuseckBy Dr. Craig von Buseck7 Minutes

CVB: The second section of your book, The Softer Side of Leadership, naturally builds upon the first by focusing on skills that effective leaders foster in the organization. Organizational dimensions such as creativity seem especially important.

Eugene Habecker: I think creativity is the source of new ideas. When I was doing my own doctoral work at the University of Michigan, for example, one of the statements that I read in a textbook just burned itself deeply into my mind. “A few indeed are the people in the organization who aren’t aware of the pitfalls you’re about to face as a leader.” I mean, somebody is seeing those issues and pitfalls. But few indeed are those in the organization who can truly foresee the opportunities that an organization has.

So, you need to create an open organization where ideas can flourish. If you have a top down micromanager leader, and a lot of organizations have those kinds of leaders, and they want to be in charge, they want to be in control, and nobody jumps until they ask the question, “How high?,” you’re not going to get creative people. I think part of the key to encouraging creativity is that number one, a leader has to model it.

Most leaders are not trained to be creative. Most leaders are taught to stay within the lines. You don’t exceed the budget. You have to meet the fundraising goal, and you don’t take risks unnecessarily like jumping off into the deep end to do something that’s using really outside-the-box thinking. However, that’s the essence of creativity. So, unless you’re fostering those kinds of ideas, and I’m not talking here about having a department of creativity, I’m talking about, first of all, a leader modeling that creative spirit.

But a leader also has to bring people on board who are gifted contrarians. They look at life differently and see the temptations. Some leaders might say “I don’t want to do that,” or “that person is about to give me nightmares and cause me trouble.” That person may be the one that provides the life-giving new option or idea to the organization.

CVB: That’s what I was going to say. Not only bring them in, but actually listen to them, turn them loose, give them some budget. You’ve led organizations, and I’m hearing you and loving what you’re saying, but I have to be honest, I haven’t seen it very much. I’ve heard people say “this is what we need to do,” but then they go back to the other side where it is “I want them to do what I want them to do” instead of saying “There’s this huge pool of ideas, creativity, talents, and I’m directing all of them to do what I want them to do and turn it upside down.”

My other concern is with the middle managers, where the leader may want all of this, but then the middle managers totally negate it. Can you talk about that situation?

Eugene Habecker: I think there’s a reason why they negate it, but that’s a good segue into the chapter “Lead and Follow, Follow and Lead.” Most leadership books that I’ve read start out with, “You have to lead, then you have to follow.” And what they mean by follow is that you have to follow the Lord and be faithful to his call, and indeed you have to do that. But I’m using followership here in a totally different way. What I mean by follow in this book is that a leader is not always a leader. You have your position of authority, but if you have to be the leader in each and every circumstance, you’re going to produce people who are robots at the middle level and on your senior team. They’re never going to have the freedom to jump up and say, “Have you thought about going this direction?”

So, the idea is that if I’m going to go to a faculty meeting, for example, I’m not the leader. I’m the follower. I learned from the faculty. I learned about curriculum. I learned about all kinds of ideas where they are the experts. And if I say I’m going to lead the faculty, they actually lead me. Now that feeds back into what I’m doing. Most leaders make the mistake of thinking that there are either leaders in the organization or followers in the organization. I’m going to say that every person is a leader and every person is a follower, including the person who sits in that chair, and if you model that attitude in your leadership and the way you lead, people will catch that and jump on it and you’ll turn them loose.

For example, early in my career, the senior team would wrestle with an issue and we would talk about it and then we’d say, “So what are the problems with that?” Then people might think, “Well yeah, that’s a pretty good question to ask.” People always had the capacity to find something wrong with an issue. I think that’s the wrong question. The right question is “What did we miss?,” or “How do we make it better?” I want them joining me, joining us, in celebrating creative new options to make what we’ve worked on better.

Peter Drucker says that the problem about business schools is they’re too focused on problem solving and not focused on finding opportunities. And I want people who are opportunity finders, which circles right back around to your initial question, “How do you cultivate creativity?”

Order your copy of The Softer Side of Leadership by Eugene B. Habecker