Should You Really Strive to Be a Creative Leader?

Matt Wallaert

27 April 2020

I’m a geek about work. Even when fully employed, I read job postings for fun. As a believer in Teddy Roosevelt’s quote, “Far and away the best prize that life has to offer is the chance to work hard at work worth doing,” I’ve always been fascinated by the way in which we describe our work and the people we think will do it best.

In an era where job hunting seems to have more to do with networking and headlines than it does long-form text, it is tempting to think of job postings as meaningless. But as companies like Textio have so convincingly shown, people clearly are reading them. Otherwise, changes in wording wouldn't create such different applicant pools (eliminating gendered wording can significantly increase the number of women who apply, for example).

There are some job posting words that I find particularly triggering, usually in the negative. Some words, like “strategic thinking,” can be assumed (would anyone describe a job as requiring nonstrategic thinking?). But the one that most often surprises people is my loathing for the word “creative.”  

When people use “creative” to describe someone, it is usually a post-hoc compliment: the person did something unexpected to create a positive outcome. But the survivorship bias (the tendency to look only at positive exemplars) applies—we think the person was successful because they were creative but ignore all the creative people who were massively unsuccessful. We’re really praising the outcome, but we talk about the process.

Creativity, as a characteristic, is generally defined in psychology as a high capacity for divergent thinking. That is, a creative person is likely to generate novel alternatives that others wouldn’t typically generate. So, for example, imagine I asked you to think about all the things for which you could use a brick. You make a list of as many things as you can in two minutes, and then you get a point for anything you wrote down that nobody else has. The higher the score, the more creative you are.

But just because something is novel doesn’t mean it is a good idea. Using a brick as a stepping stool probably wouldn’t occur to most people, so you’d get a point for coming up with it, but I’d still rather have an actual stepping stool.

And yet we love “creativity” because of the way it feels. The TV show Mad Men works as entertainment because they are telling the story of products and services in unpredictable ways. We love creative leaders in much the same way because humans are literally wired to delight in novelty. And that delight often feels like inspiration and motivation, which are things we very much want leaders to make us feel.

Yet, delight is fleeting. If you step back from your survivorship bias you can likely think of many leaders you’ve known who have come in with fresh new ideas and then been ushered out shortly thereafter. Because valuing creativity is like valuing any process-oriented trait: It is valuable only to the extent that it actually predicts the outcome you want. Inspiration and motivation are great if they cause people to achieve the objectives of the organization. But if they don’t, you’re all dressed up with no place to go.

What matters, ultimately, is effectiveness. If creativity allows someone to be effective or its end result causes an organization to be more effective, all the better. But don’t reward yourself or others for mere creativity. Instead, orient toward outcomes. Think about your personal job description not as a list of novel strategies, but a list of required outcomes. Be a leader who “diversifies the workforce to match U.S. census demographics” or “raises revenue by 20 percent,” even if it is by the most boring possible methods. It may not win you any awards or get you on a Fast Company list, but you’ll be serving those you lead and your customers far better.

*Join Matt at Leadercast 2020—Positive Disruption on May 7, 2020. Due to COVID-19, this historically in-person event will be held virtually. Take part in this can’t-miss virtual leadership development experience—also featuring speakers Earvin “Magic” Johnson, Bozoma Saint John, Andy Stanley, Dr. Henry Cloud, Richard Montañez, Rahaf Harfoush, Amy Jo Martin and Sangram Vajre—from the comfort of your home. ATTEND VIRTUALLY

Matt Wallaert

Matt Wallaert is a behavioral scientist, entrepreneur and author of Start at the End: How to Build Products That Create Change. For more than 15 years, he has spoken to hundreds of audiences—including the United Nations, South by Southwest and many more—about behavior change. Most recently, he served as chief behavioral officer at Clover Health, where he directed one of the world’s largest behavioral science teams.

Subscribe to our leadership content