Creative Leadership: Am I Creative?

June 2012, by So-Young Kang

In the space of creative leadership and innovation, I often get questions like:

  • Can you teach people how to be creative? Is it nature or nurture?
  • How can you become more creative?
  • How can you lead an organization creatively? What does it take?

Let’s start with some fundamental assumptions. How many people were once 5 years old? All of us adults, not some of us, were once 5 years old. We had to go through being 5 to become adults. In a 1968 study by George Land, he found that 98% of 5-year-olds are creative and by the time we become adults, that goes down to 2%. Then what happened? Social norms, education, and culture in our environment started to tell us to focus, prioritize, ‘get serious,’ and leave our toys outside. The freedom to create and play has been beaten out of most of us who are not labeled as ‘designers’ or ‘artists.’ We have unlearned how to be creative. So the great news is that we can relearn it because it’s already inside of us. Isn’t that great news that we were born creative? Now the question is, how can we rediscover and release it back into our lives? What will it take?
One of the ways I rediscover my own creativity is to take time to experience and reflect on beautiful things. I love taking normal, beautiful things and thinking about how to apply that to leadership. As a musician, one of my favorite places of inspiration comes from listening to live music – especially jazz. There are so many things we can draw from on creative leadership through jazz. Here are a few things I took away from BluJaz Café, a live jazz restaurant, in Singapore recently.

1) Freedom to improvise within a common set of rules. In classical jazz, there are rules and specific cadences and chord progressions that the players must know in order to ‘jam’ together. Otherwise no one would know what to do. The players are usually familiar with the set of chords or progressions at the start. Then within those progressions, there is a tremendous amount of freedom to improvise and ‘jam.’ Is there a way to allow freedom for people to create at work within certain boundaries?

2) Everyone gets to be a star. I love how each player gets to have a shining moment to play his/her heart out – even the drummer – which is usually in the background. Do we give everyone a chance at work to be a star and be recognized for their contributions?

3) It takes precision and a lot of practice to create something beautiful.Watching each musician and the passion that he/she brings to his craft is inspiring. It looks simple when they play but you know it has taken years of practice and refinement to look so effortless. Are we willing to put in many hours of practice and hard work refining our craft (e.g., strategy, product knowledge, design, etc.) to create something amazing?

4) Leader is present and sets the tone through small gestures. In every jazz ensemble, there is a leader who sets the tone and rhythm for the group. While that person is always present and signals when to stop, when to slow down, and when to wrap the song up, he/she does not necessarily always have to be the one in the spotlight; and sometimes it’s hard to tell who the leader really is. As a leader, how do you set the tone and signal to your teams when to keep going and when to slow down and where to focus?

As a leader who wants to lead an organization creatively, we need to start with relearning how to be creative and rediscovering where we get inspiration from. For some of us, it’s through meditation and prayer. For others, it’s in nature. Still for others, it’s sitting down and sketching. However, for all of us, it takes time and rest to free our minds to dream, imagine, and enjoy.


Once inspired, we can then bring that energy back into our leadership. It can show up in many places, from how we run our meetings to how ideas are encouraged. I see many leaders who want to lead creatively yet don’t give their people a chance to make any mistakes. We say with our words that we encourage creativity but we squash it with our actions.

Creative leadership is about designing a culture where your people feel free to think, ideate and create new ideas, come up with solutions and ways of working. It’s about giving your people the time and mindspace to create. Creative leadership leads to innovation.


Creative leadership example: Google

It is no wonder that Google is one of the best companies to work for. They run like the jazz band. 1) They believe that ‘creativity loves constraint’ and use problems as situations to exercise creativity. 2) They value everyone’s input and create a culture where ideas can come from anywhere—customers, employees, engineers, management—everyone and anyone can be a star at Google. 3) They hire people who are excellent at their craft. One of their hiring flyers said, “If you’re brilliant, we’re hiring.” They recognize that if you take people who are excellent at their craft and bring them together, something amazing can come out of it. 4) Google’s leadership clearly sets the tone and is adamant about living their values.

Google co-founder Larry Page cares passionately about creating an entrepreneurial culture where people want to make a meaningful and positive impact on people’s lives. They have been clear about ‘Ten things we know to be true,’ including “you can make money without doing evil.” These are all small gestures that send big messages about who they are as a company. When it comes to creating time and space, Googlers are allowed to spend 20% of their time on their interests and passions. It is no wonder that Google’s stock has grown 5x since it went public while Microsoft’s stock has barely moved over the same time period. It continues to be one of the most desired places to work.

Building a great organization requires creative leadership which starts with YOU.

I am not a painter or filmmaker. I can’t draw. AND I’m highly creative. I design businesses, how people work, and systems. I come up with creative solutions to solve problems. Whether you are an accountant, a lawyer, in business or a filmmaker, YOU ARE HIGHLY CREATIVE. You were born creative. Let’s give ourselves the time and space to rediscover and reapply creativity into everything that we do, and apply it to how we lead and the cultures we create.

Are you ready to rediscover your creative self?