Leadership: How to Be a Creative Leader

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1956 was not supposed to be a good year to start a homebuilding business. America was sliding into a recession. The competition was fierce. Eli Broad started his own building business anyway.

Broad and his partner figured they could beat the competition by being efficient. That gave them an edge, but not much. They also thought they would build their homes without basements. Everybody said they were nuts.

The conventional wisdom was that no one in Detroit would buy a home without a basement. People originally used basements to store coal for their furnace. Broad and his partner figured that new heating methods had made basements unnecessary. They thought eliminating the basement would lower the cost of the home and the time to build it. They used some of the savings to offer a carport.

That wasn’t a blind leap of faith. Broad read industry publications so he knew builders in other cities built homes without basements. He’d worked out the numbers, charted the construction process, and planned the marketing. The result was a dramatic success and the start of a Fortune 500 company, KB Homes.

Amazing, huh? It’s easy to read a story like this and think, “Well, that guy was creative, and I’m not.”

Don’t do that. Eli Broad is a smart and creative man. But it’s not because he was born with some magic creativity gene. He did what creative business leaders do. You can learn to do it, too.

Creative Business Leaders Find New Ways

Conventional wisdom is important. But don’t let it be an excuse for not doing things you’ve never done before. Start your journey to creative leadership by resolving to question the conventional wisdom.

Next, broaden the top of your idea funnel. Read the trade journals to see what other people in your industry are doing. That’s what Broad did. That’s what Sam Walton did. If you know how to read, you can do it too.

Then, broaden the top of that funnel some more. Read outside your industry. Read things that aren’t business, like history and biography. You’ll find the great ideas that will turn into great business solutions outside your current bubble.

When you pick up an idea that someone else is using elsewhere, learn to ask questions. Ask “How could we?” or “What if?” or “Why not?”

Creative Leaders Do Their Homework

Don’t just take a good idea and apply it. Great solutions don’t show up ready to use. Work out the details. Test your idea on a small scale.

Don’t go all in unless you’re sure what you’re doing will work. If you’re not sure, don’t despair. Listen to the advice of Richard Branson: “Business opportunities are like busses, there will always be another one coming.”

Creative Leaders Use All the Brains They Can Get

Dana CEO Woody Moorcot once asked, “Why did we hire 30,000 brains and only use two of them?”

Too many leaders act like that. Maybe it’s a residue of the idea that the boss should have all the answers. Maybe it’s the faintest tinge of arrogance. Creative leaders listen because they know that the more brains they can use, the better.

The people who work with you all have good ideas. I know that because they’re human, and human beings are wired to have good ideas. Most people have given up sharing their ideas. That’s because so many bosses don’t listen, or ridicule the idea, or use it and claim credit for themselves. After a while, team members quit sharing.

Creative leaders don’t act that way. Realize that great ideas can come from any brain, not just yours. Listen when people bring you ideas. Instead of explaining why they won’t work, ask the questions we talked about earlier. No matter who has the idea, you’ll probably have to change it some to get it to work. No matter what the idea is, you’ll be able to find a way to test it.

Creative Leaders Know That Creativity in Business Is A Team Sport

I had the privilege of working with George Hart when he was the Chief of Police in Oakland, California. Chief Hart had a practice I recommend to any leader. When the department did something wrong, Chief Hart was the one who stood in front of the cameras and took the questions and comments. When there was a win to share, he let the people responsible for that win take the accolades and answer the questions.

Remember that creativity in business is a team sport. Your batting average doesn’t matter. What matters is whether the team wins. So, thank people for sharing their ideas. Praise their effort, not just their result. Encourage everyone to contribute to the team.

Boss’s Bottom Line

Creative business leaders widen the top of their idea funnel and ask questions to challenge conventional wisdom. Creative business leaders use all the brains they can get. Creative business leaders recognize that business creativity is a team sport. That doesn’t require special gifts or uncommon intelligence.

Resources – Books

The Art of Being Unreasonable: Lessons in Unconventional Thinking by Eli Broad

Creativity in Business: Based on the Famed Stanford University Course That Has Revolutionized the Art of Success by Michael Ray and Rochelle Myers

Creativity Inc: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in The Way of True Inspiration by Ed Catmull

Resources – Blog Posts

A Creativity and Innovation Catechism

My pick of the Best Books on Innovation

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