Creative Leadership

Years ago, when I was setting up a new theatre, I put our banking requirements out to tender. The winning bank was RBS and the local manager took me out to lunch to say thank you. I’d just done five years at a major company and the experience had left me thinking hard about the issue of leadership. I discussed this with my new Bank Manager and he recommended I read In Pursuit of Excellence by Tom Peters. It was my first introduction to Tom Peters and I instantly fell deeply in love. Everything I had ever thought about, wondered, and even started to experiment with, was there in that seminal book. 25 years later and he’s still one of my favourite gurus. Thriving on Chaos is one of my all time favourite books. When I write my book ‘Improvisational Entrepreneurship’, it will reflect the homage due to Tom Peters!

Anyway, I did start consciously to change my leadership style – began to think about it more than I had previously – and in the 90’s, I found myself running a large organisation with a handpicked Strategic Management Team. I remember my epiphany moment with absolute clarity. As a team we’d been working together for about a year, very successfully, trusting each other as we took on unexpected and amazing adventures. One day, I walked into the office for an SMT meeting, and they were all there waiting for me. And, as I sat down and looked at them, I suddenly had the thought: these guys are superb. I don’t have to have all the answers any more – I just have to create the circumstances for them to come up with the answers.

That was about 20 years ago and I’ve been privileged to work in that way with that calibre of colleagues ever since. Today, 23 July 2011, I’ve just read a great piece by Ken Robinson, another much loved guru, where he talks about a recent report by IBM entitled Capitalizing on Complexity. ( ) His conclusion is ‘The role of a creative leader is not to have all the ideas; it’s to create a culture where everyone can have ideas and feel that they’re valued. So it’s much more about creating climates. I think it’s a big shift for a lot of people.’ How wonderfully affirming ! and yet, also, how challenging – even working in small organisations, (and sometimes it’s almost despite working in small organisations), investing in the time for everyone to do creative thinking can be difficult when you’re constantly chasing the next deadline. Sometimes you just know that people are thinking ‘Christ, she’s the bloody leader – why doesn’t she get on with the thinking and let me do my delivery?’… so you have to be careful, sensitive about making the demand, but you do have to do it – I know that in CidaCo, the very best things we’ve done are things that we have co-created – when everyone has been involved in recognising the customer need and then helped to design the solution. (And, interestingly, using the language of our Innovation process, COSTAR, comes quite naturally as I discuss this. These days, we COSTAR at the drop of a hat, and it really works!)

So, one of the major challenges for any small company is to create the space for collective creative thinking time. And in my experience, it just won’t happen unless you put it in the diary. It has to have a priority among the regular tasks; as a leader, you have to give it that priority; and it has to be seen across the company as having that priority. Then it will happen.

Doesn’t stop you having your own creative thinking time of course – one of the best things about working in Yorkshire is the time I spend on trains going to London – 2 hours and 20 minutes of uninterrupted thinking time!

Anamaria Wills