Creativity – Desired or Unappreciated Trait of Today’s Leaders

- Apr• 27•12

By:  Tom Pearce, iLead Consulting & Training, CEO

A couple of years ago, top management from one of my major clients made an unannounced visit to my leadership development class I was facilitating for their organization. The topic of discussion that afternoon was developing creative skills.

The immediate response from this group of executives was, “What is this ##$%?” According to this group of visitors to the class, we might as well have been burning incense and singing Kum-Ba-Yah.

Why did these administrators react this way? Simply stated, corporations are looking for bottom-line solutions that are useful, cost effective and have immediate impact to the organization. So why is creativity viewed in such a negative light and considered by some as a trait not worth the investment?

In the March 2011 issue of the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, Wharton management professor, Jennifer Mueller and co-authors Jack A. Goncalo of Cornell and Dishan Kamdar of ISB published a study examining how creative people were viewed by their colleagues. In their findings, “creative” people were not viewed as leaders.

According to the research, people showing imagination were seen as dreamers because their ideas have not been proven. Leaders, according to the findings, are expected to maintain order and keep the company moving forward.

Yet in a recent survey of 1,500 CEOs by IBM’s Institute for Business Value, creativity was named the single most important attribute for success in leading large corporations in the future. This result does not surprise Mueller:

“Those individuals know how to recognize good ideas, are open to them and know how to get creative ideas through the company. Selecting creative leaders is the critical challenge organizations face.”

To further illustrate this point, compare and contrast the differences between Hewett-Packard and Apple.

In Adam Hartung’s article in the August 25, 2011 issue of Forbes, “Why Leo Apotheker is No Steve Jobs – Too Bad for HP,” it is very apparent that HP forgot about the importance of innovation and developing creative leaders. In the past, HP was a leader in patent applications, new product launches and being first with products engineers needed and wanted.

Then in 1999, HP hired Carly Fiorina from AT&T as the new CEO and she became the first CEO to utilize old-fashioned, industrial ideas by cutting “R&D and new product development in favor of seeking market share with largely undifferentiated products.” The company shifted from less innovation to spending large amounts of money to produce copy-cat products.

Compare to Steve Jobs’ actions at the same time. Per Hartung, Jobs “rapidly sought out new technologies, such as MP3, which could be used to fulfill the trend for ease of use and mobility and launched organic products that were differentiated from competitors such as Dell, HP and Sony.” Apple continues to be the innovator of new products meeting the needs of the public or better yet, creating technology that eliminates the demand for other products.

Conversely, HP purchased Palm around the same time Apple introduced the iPhone. Notwithstanding, the iPad revolutionized the way we access the Internet by making it more portable and the need to carry a laptop unnecessary. As Hartung points out, “while the latest HP CEO keeps doing acquisitions and reshuffling assets seeking a ‘transformation,’ Steve Jobs kept the Apple team focused on meeting emerging market needs.”

So the question remains, should we rethink the importance of creativity in our leaders? Just ask Apple.

Contact Tom Pearce directly at

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  1. this is very interesting. thanks for that. we need more sites like this. i commend you on your great content and excellent topic choices.

  2. Brad Pearce says:


    Great article. Most of my experience in the corporate world has been in the sales/management arena and the article touches on some interesting points.

    Mr. James Pearce made a very good point about visionaries. A visionary is not only creative, but adaptable to the ever changing business arena. What works today won’t work tomorrow. They constantly alter their creative approach two to three steps ahead of the competition. Creativity without adaptability offers ideas not innovative solutions.

    I feel the greatest challenge of creative leaders is to sell their vision to others that are used to doing business the same old way. Normally, creativity causes change which can be uncomfortable. However, Organizations that succeed not only encourage creative leaders, but embrace them.

    Brad Pearce

  3. Bo Bell says:

    Good thoughts! I think too many business leaders concentrate on the status quo-lets survuve this month,year etc., insteadof really looking at their long term goals.

    Also, you should be working on your golf game a little more! Lord knows, you can use some help!

  4. Alan Kuhn says:

    Good article, Tom. Creativity has different forms and means of expression with different industries, but I believe that all senior executives will be receptive to a creative idea if 1) it offers a potential solution to a problem that keeps them awake at night and 2)it supports the business plan. Posed as an innovative idea with future benefit, an idea will not get the same attention and support it would if posed as something immediately applicable to a right-now problem. The idea could have visionary elements with future benefits, as well, but the how-am-I-doing-this-quarter executive needs to feel secure enough in the near-term to be open to contemplating a longer-term creative idea. Steve Jobs had the gift of not fixating on the near term so he could better visualize the future.

  5. Patricia Chapin says:

    I totally agree that creative types are often the innovators and can visualize perhaps better where a company should put its resources. But are they actually better leaders of people? That’s, I think a different question. In my experience, creative types are more often introspective making them actually less effective managers of the troops. Let them (us) dream, let them create a big picture.

    UNLESS perhaps you’re suggesting that creative endeavors be encouraged at a younger age and throughout the educating process. In that case, I wholeheartedly agree. Everyone can benefit by more creative-based projects and learning the actual how-to of imagining and then creating. This unfortunately isn’t stressed very much in schools anymore. Maybe this is where you were taking your people — go for the imagination, think out of the box, etc.

  6. Jim Pearce, AIA says:

    You raise some interesting points. I think Steve Jobs was much more than creative. I think he was a visionary in a way very few people have been visionaries.

    I agree that creativity is one characteristic of many leaders. However, I think different people are creative in different ways.

    In the world of design and construction, I observe some people that are creative in an “artsy craftsy” kind of way and other people that are creative in an “innovative financing” kind of way. I also observe people that are creative in the way they communicate with other people and how they interact with other people.

  7. Sandi Froese says:

    As a former public school administrator and Director of Gifted and Talented programs, I agree with your comments to develop and encourage creativity in our current and future workforce. To not do so, ignores “value added.”

  8. James says:

    Looks good!

  9. Mike says:

    You can also see a difference in the employees. It seems everyone wants to go to work for Apple.

  10. Chelanie says:

    Great article. It definitely shows you the difference from the top down.

  11. Loraine says:

    Excellent article, thanks for sharing!