The cultural bias against creatives as leaders

A 2010 study of 1,500 CEOs by IBM yielded a few large insights. One was that over 60% believed that creativity is the most critical competency for CEOs today.

ibm creativity diagram

Creative leaders — they believe — are comfortable with disruptive innovation, both as a stressor impacting the company but also as a tool for competitive advantage. They are willing to refactor operations to produce better outcomes, inventing new ways of delivering value. They tolerate ambiguity well, and are courageous and visionary.

The disconnect is that, in general, people who demonstrate these sorts of capabilities — creatives — are often passed over for management jobs. In particular, we seem to have a cultural bias against creatives. They don’t line up with the typical leadership profile, and the nature of creatives is to introduce ambiguity, which unsettles people looking for certainty. Recent research by  Jennifer S. Mueller (University of Pennsylvania), Jack Goncalo (Cornell University), and Dishan Kamdar (Indian School of Business), as reported in Recognizing Creative Leadership: Can Creative Idea Expression Negatively Relate to Perceptions of Leadership Potential?, shows this to be the case:

The most prototypical kind of leader is expected to organize and coordinate groups to diminish uncertainty and promote order by emphasizing shared goals (Philips & Lord, 1981). The prototypical leader is also expected to conform to group norms and goals in order to symbolically support the group identity (van Knippenberg, van Knippenberg, De Cremer, & Hogg, 2004) and to promote collective action (Lord, Foti, & de Vader, 1984). Targets who behave in ways that convey these characteristics to others are readily categorized as fitting the leadership prototype.

Research on prototypes of the creative individual underscores that social perceivers most often diagnose creative potential based on targets’ expression of creative ideas in social contexts (Elsbach & Kramer, 2003). However, far from matching fundamental leadership expectations associated with exuding control and promoting clear goals, the expression of creative solutions may actually introduce ambiguity or uncertainty, in part, because by definition, novel ideas involve deviations from the status quo and are not yet proven (Amabile, 1996; Staw, 1995). Prototype theory confirms this view that the expression of creative ideas is often associated with uncertainty, nonconformity, unorthodoxy, and unconventionality (Elsbach & Kramer, 2003; Sternberg, 1985) – traits which run contrary to deeply rooted expectations that prototypical leaders diminish uncertainty and provide normative order (Phillips & Lord, 1981).

So, despite what CEO polls indicate, there are major barriers for creatives being perceived as leaders. But what about obvious visionaries, like Steve Jobs, or Richard Branson, widely hailed as creative visionaries that led enormously successful companies. It turns out that tempering the mindset of being creative with the cultural notion of charismatic leadership changes everything.

This is not to say, however, that creative idea expression and leadership will always be at odds in the minds of social perceivers. Indeed, categorization theory suggests the leadership prototype is multi-faceted and may include less central components that shape perceptions of leadership only when they are made salient (Lord et al, 1984). Charismatic leadership in particular represents one category of leadership that includes second order characteristics like uniqueness and individualism which may be more compatible with prototypes of creative people (Den Hartog, House, Hanges, Ruiz-Quintanilla, & Dorfman, 1999). Indeed, the prototype of creativity actually includes “charisma” (Elsbach & Kramer, 2003; Goncalo, Flynn & Kim, 2010). Hence, when the charismatic prototype is activated in the minds of evaluators, the expression of creative solutions may actually send a clear signal of leadership potential.

The researchers tested this in a series of studies, that does in fact suggest that when the idea of charismatic leadership is openly discussed while creative individuals are evaluated for leadership potential. Absent that, though, it seems that creatives are largely ruled out as unsuitable leaders.

How does that gibe with the IBM results? The researchers explictly refer to the IBM surveys results, and comment in this way:

Our findings also suggest that organizations may face a bias against selecting the most creative individuals as leaders in favor of selecting leaders who would preserve the status quo by sticking with feasible but relatively unoriginal solutions. This may explain why in their analysis of scores of leaders, IBM’s Institute for Business Value found that many leaders expressed doubt or lack of confidence in their own ability to lead through times of complexity (Kern, 2010). Our results suggest that if the dominant prototype of leadership favors useful, non-creative responses, that the senior leaders in the IBM study may have been promoted based on this prototypical perception of leadership and now find themselves in a world that has vastly changed, one that requires much more creative responses and thinking. Indeed, this bias in favor of selecting less creative leaders may partially explain why so many leaders fail (Hogan & Hogan, 2001), and why so many groups resist change (Argyris, 1997), as the leaders selected may simply lack the openness to recognize solutions that depart from what is already known.

For years, I have quoted Eric Bonabeau’s line, ‘Management will continue to use techniques that don’t work instead of those that they can’t understand’. It seems that we now may have a corollary  Leaders will continue to be drawn from the non-creatives, indicated by their bias toward preserving the status quo, instead of drawing from the creatives, those who have the capacity in invent new approaches to meeting today’s challenges.

(There’s a parable in there about the larger world, as well. Like divided government, the Austerity crisis in Europe, and the inability of our society to deal with existential threats like climate change, but this is not the forum for those concerns.)

My last observation on this sobering analysis is that the trend line around the Chief Digital Office might be an echo of the CEO’s perception of a corporate creativity gap. CEOs may view the opportunity to hire some genius mutant as CDO, someone formerly working as a creative director at a digital agency or as a McKinsey consultant, or a successful entrepreneur. Someone without the cobwebs holding back lifelong CIOs and other fossils in the C suite. We’ll have to see how that will play out, though, considering this bias against the creatives won’t be changed in a year: it might take a generation.