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Leaders - ten ways you can be more creative

By Dave Oliver, Fourth Corner Communications & Creativity

June 11 2012 - What kind of leadership roles do you have in your organization? Customer Services Director, Business Development Manager, Vice President of Sales? That's great, but how about Meaning Maker, Storyteller, Talent Scout, Innovation Seeker? How different would things be if job titles reflected what we wanted managers to do and be like rather than what they are responsible for?

I'm an internal communications professional, which means I get to spend a lot of time with leaders - from senior managers to frontline supervisors - helping them to communicate with their people. But when I watch leaders at work I can't help thinking that there's so much more they can do to communicate, inspire, motivate, innovate and generally bring the best out of their people. Leadership education - the way we teach managers - like most education in developed countries, is linear, analytical and knowledge-based. Isn't it about time we got a bit more creative about this? Isn't it time to exercise some of that creative, conceptual and random right side of our brain? Isn't it about time we encouraged, even 'trained' our leaders attributes like spirit, rhetoric, creativity, play, mastery, collaboration, talent spotting?

There's plenty of evidence out there to suggest that those who can master the right brain attributes of design, creativity, storytelling, empathy and 'big picture thinking' will be the ones to prosper in business in the future, with the traditional 'knowledge-based' professions coming under increasing pressure from offshore outsourcing and internet-led automation. Leadership will require greater right-brain thinking than ever before to motivate teams, drive innovation, unleash creative thinking and seek new ways of working. It'll take a different approach to leadership capability - more soft than hard, more people than process, more show than tell, more right than left.

So, leaders, here are my top ten things that you can do to inject a bit of creativity into the way you think, lead, communicate and get the best out of your people.

  1. Go to an art gallery. Exercise the right side of your brain by looking at a painting; it's a great non-linear way to take in a message and read a situation. When we look at paintings we don't start at the top and read left to right, our eyes wander randomly and we build the story from what we gather. This is how human beings evolved. Leaders can learn from that. Don't rely on linear, written reports; look at your organization or your team like you would a painting. The detail will emerge.
  2. Watch Star Wars. Or Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter. In fact, just about every action movie ever made. Look at how the story is structured: Normality - something happens - the call to action - the quest - obstacles - the big test - the hero overcomes - the prize - normality again. It's the story of life and a story playing out in your organization right now. We humans were telling stories long before we had email. The culture of your organization is formed by hundreds, indeed thousands, of stories. Don't underestimate the power of a good story, well told.
  3. Be a hedgehog. The ancient Greek philosopher Archilochus once said: "The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing." This is what our right-brain is good at ... connecting up all the little pictures to see the big picture. Managers should be able to see and articulate the big picture, to show how things connect, to see what really matters. There's so much going on in every organization.... but what's it all part of?
  4. While we're talking about the Greeks, 2,500 years ago in Ancient Greece, rhetoric was one of only three subjects taught in schools (the others being gymnastics and geometry). Without any recognized form of written literature, the ability to speak in public - to articulate an idea through persuasion and language - was a key skill for Greek students wanting to get on in the world. Great philosophers such as Aristotle and Epictetus would lecture whilst walking, using the music of their delivery to teach, persuade and convey ideas. So ditch the PowerPoint and re-learn the art of rhetoric
  5. Be less creative. That's right, be more creative by being less creative. What I mean is, don't feel the need to over-complicate your message. Keep it simple and learn from history. Winston Churchill didn't say "We'll engage the enemy in armed conflict on the sand covered area adjacent to the sea" and Martin Luther King wasn't known for saying "I possess a succession of images, thoughts and emotions as involuntary visions occurring during sleep". Leaders should not dress up the message. Keep it plain and simple, nothing fancy.
  6. Learn how to have ideas and how to encourage others to have them. Innovation is what happens when an idea is put to good use, but the idea itself is the outcome of a creative process. So learn some creative thinking techniques. There are plenty of them out there - six thinking hats, systematic inventive thinking, brainstorming, greenhousing, random worlds, river-jumping etc. If leaders understand where ideas come from, they can plant, nurture and harvest the ideas for their people... and themselves.
  7. Be funny: Oh come on, we all take work a bit too seriously don't we? And yet there's plenty of evidence to show the health, wellbeing and productivity benefits of laughter, games and humour. When you play, you are activating the right side of your brain ... the creative side. Gaming is becoming big business for organizations wanting to get a message across or teach new skills. Humour is a proven deflector of criticism, hostility and tension. It helps communicate difficult messages. Let's face it, laughter is no laughing matter.
  8. Grow down, not grow up. Want to see the most creative people on earth? Then visit a nursery or kindergarten. As their brains haven't yet been hard wired for pre-judgement and conformity, children are the original free-thinkers. As Picasso said: "All children are artists." Give them an expensive gift and they'll play with the box. Leave them in the garden and they'll turn it into a jungle, an alien planet, a fairyland, a battlefield, a wedding. It's pure, unfettered creativity. Then we go to school and have it knocked out of us. Then its work, where any remaining sense of creation is suppressed, frowned upon or allocated to a 30-minute brainstorm. We need it back. We need more play at work.
  9. Learn the art of empathy. Medical students at progressive med schools in the US and Europe are being taught the art of narrative medicine - understanding the patient's whole story. Instead of rushing to match current symptoms with hard-earned left-brained knowledge, new doctors are being taught empathy. By understanding a patient's whole story, and how they as people, they are better able to use their right-brain to connect the pieces and form a balanced diagnosis. The lesson for leaders is to understand your people. Get to know them and their lives. Call it narrative leadership.
  10. Understand motivation. Offer someone money to come up with an idea and you'll be disappointed. Entice a team with a bonus to meet a deadline and you'll never get them to go the extra mile for nothing again. Money doesn't motivate or produce results if any degree of creative input is involved. Instead, evidence proves that what gets people up in the morning is a sense of purpose, a life of meaning, the warm glow of satisfaction that comes from doing something good, helping others, being creative, being part of a good team doing great work. So leaders, choose your words carefully.

About the author

Dave Oliver: Dave Oliver is a consultant, trainer, writer, blogger and practitioner in the field of internal communications and creativity. With more than twenty years experience behind him on both the corporate and agency side, Dave is one of the UK's most experienced internal communications practitioners. Through his blog Creative Communicator, Dave is leading a new drive to think differently about workplace communication and leadership, in which human attributes such as storytelling, rhetoric, meaning, empathy, play and creativity are used to drive engagement and motivation. Contact Dave at or visit his blog at

Fourth Corner: Fourth Corner is a specialist employee communications and creativity agency, providing a wide range of employee communications and creativity services such as strategic consultancy, project management, writing, training, creative workshops, production, podcasts, research and audits. Details at



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