Discover more from Creative Leadership
What is Creative Leadership?
The Leadership Challenge for Creative Directors
How do you define creative leadership?
And what does a creative director actually do?
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From this picture above, you might think I’m confused by the question or have no idea what to do with my hands. And while we’re on the subject of hands, believe it or not, this can be a huge problem for most creative professionals who often pitch their ideas. I’ve seen some motion wildly with their hands. Others stoically lock them behind the back to portray the seriousness of their concepts. Occasionally, creative directors too cool for their own good might tuck one hand in their pocket while leaning against a podium (never a good idea). And, of course, there is the dreaded fig leaf that, whether male or female, should be avoided at all costs.
But I digress because, you know, creative directors can be easily distracted…
No, this picture was taken while scouting a photo shoot for a project with PARC in Palo Alto, California back in 2013 when I worked as the Executive Creative Director for a company called The Brand Experience. At the time, I was directing or modeling what I wanted the photographer, the talented Josh Rossi, to do. And boy did he deliver as you can see in the final image showing a PARC energy researcher at work in one of the iconic building’s courtyards designed by architect Gyo Obata (the “O” in HOK).
Modeling. That sounds a lot like “modeling the way” from The Leadership Challenge. And when it comes to defining creative leadership and what creative directors actually do, you really don’t need to look further than one of the greatest books ever written on leadership.
Model the Way: Creative directors are not unlike other leaders in the corporate world. In fact, you could say we too follow well established principles of leadership, such as those developed by professors Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner. More than 40. years ago (they have been around long enough to print six editions), these two academics set out to discover what it took to become a great leader. They wanted to know the common practices of ordinary men and women when they were at their leadership best. Their analysis of thousands of cases and surveys revealed “The Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership.” The first practice is modeling the way. “Leaders establish principles concerning the way people (constituents, peers, colleagues, and customers alike) should be treated and the way goals should be pursued. They create standards of excellence and then set an example for others to follow. Because the prospect of complex change can overwhelm people and stifle action, they set interim goals so that people can achieve small wins as they work toward larger objectives. They unravel bureaucracy when it impedes action; they put up signposts when people are unsure of where to go or how to get there; and they create opportunities for victory.” Um, okay, no, that’s not exactly how I’d define creative leadership or how creative directors lead. However, when it comes to modeling, there are three things creative directors do that I believe captures the essence of what Kouzes and Posner discovered. First, creative leadership begins with research. When a creative director “establishes principles,” they are often wrapped up in research or a creative brief. Creative leadership is about understanding the audience, message, story, brand, takeaways, etc. However, even more important is actually fostering an environment where research is encouraged. A creative director models the way through curiosity. Second, we literally model the “standard of excellence” we want. This can involve everything from modeling a pose during a photo shoot and writing a creative treatment to getting out a Sharpie or hitting the iPad to sketch a rough design. Creative Leadership is about isn’t just about saying what you want but doing it as well. Third, we believe in fast prototyping. By definition, a model is something “on a smaller scale than the original.” Well, we model the way by encouraging fast prototypes that can achieve those “small wins” and “unravel bureaucracy.” This is the essence of creative leadership.
Inspire a Shared Vision: The next “Practice of Exemplary Leadership” is all about vision. Again, this is how Kouzes and Posner describe inspiring a shared vision. “Leaders passionately believe that they can make a difference. They envision the future, creating an ideal and unique image of what the organization can become. Through their magnetism and quiet persuasion, leaders enlist others in their dreams. They breathe life into their visions and get people to see exciting possibilities for the future.” In this description, Kouzes and Posner describe the job of a creative director with near perfection. However, there are two words I’d change that dramatically impact the meaning of how this applies to creative leadership. For creative directors, it’s more about the “idea” than the “organization.” As “we envision the future,” we are focused on what the idea “can become” and how the organization will follow. For us, it’s the idea that shapes the organization. In other words, the creativity actually helps to lead. Hollywood director Quentin Tarantino likes to tell a story about meeting one of his idols, veteran filmmaker Terry Gilliam of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, Time Bandits and 12 Monkeys. When he met Mr. Gilliam, he asked him about how he achieved that special vision in each one of his films. “I have the vision in my head and all I have to do is hire a good cinematographer, good production designer, good costume designers and my job is to articulate that vision to them. After I've articulated it, they take it and go to the moon with it. Terry Gilliam isn’t inspiring a shared vision when he works with his team. No, he is inspiring his vision. In creative leadership, inspiring a shared vision is really about sharing an inspired vision. Great creative directors are able to inspire when they can persuade others to see their vision.
Challenge the Process: Kouzes and Posner’s third exemplary leadership practice is something creative directors know all about: Challenge the Process. “Leaders search for opportunities to change the status quo. They look for innovative ways to improve the organization. In doing so, they experiment and take risks. And because leaders know that risk taking involves mistakes and failures, they accept the inevitable disappointments as learning opportunities.” Hopefully, creative directors spend more time challenging their client’s preconceptions than any organizational processes. In fact, in their own organizations, creative leadership can usually involve simply ignoring the process. The question for the authors of The Leadership Challenge is this: Is ignoring the process the same as challenging it? The reason creative directors find it so enjoyable to ignore the process is because we don’t want to expend our emotional energy and time arguing over process. We can leave that to account executives and project managers. Yes, our jobs involve innovation, experimentation and risk, as Kouzes and Posner concluded, but it usually has absolutely nothing to do with process. I’d much rather challenge my client to explore the unexpected or challenge my video director when he tells me something is impossible. Creative leadership is about challenging those around you.
Enable Others to Act: While there are those creative directors who micromanage their writers, designers and talent, this exemplary leadership practice usually comes more easily to creative leaders. According to Kouzes & Posner, “Leaders foster collaboration and build spirited teams. They actively involve others. Leaders understand that mutual respect is what sustains extraordinary efforts; they strive to create an atmosphere of trust and human dignity. They strengthen others, making each person feel capable and powerful.” For creative directors, the most important word as it applies to creative leadership is “build.” Creative directors are only as good as the talent around them and so recruiting and building “spirited teams” is a primary part of creative leadership. In fact, that picture that I shared of me working with photographer Josh Rossi is a prime example of how creative directors often build teams. Josh is a young and talented self-taught photographer who built his business through social media. I first saw Josh’s work when he photographed YouTube videographer Devin “Supertramp” Graham at work. And I had first met Devin over breakfast on the North Shore of Oahu in 2009 long before he was famous. At the time, Devin had just dropped out of college to help finish a documentary on underwater photographer Jon Mozo who had tragically died in 2005 on the Banzai Pipeline. Devin had just started posting YouTube videos but hadn’t made it big yet. After seeing Josh’s photography profiling Devin’s work, I knew we had to work with him. Eventually, I was also able to work with Devin as he joined our team in 2018 on the grand opening of Warner Bros. World Abu Dhabi. His video, Batman vs. Joker Meets Parkour in Real Life, generated more than 18 million views on Facebook, YouTube and Instagram and is still going strong.
My point is this: Creative leadership is about looking for and building talent. Often times, these connections don’t pay off until years later, but creative directors are always building and recruiting talent. And, honestly, we wouldn’t be building and recruiting talent if we didn’t want them to act. That they are enabled is a given! Creative directors recruit talent to act—sometimes quite literally.
Encourage the Heart: The fifth and final exemplary leadership practice is all about rewarding talent for their great work. “Accomplishing extraordinary things in organizations is hard work. To keep hope and determination alive, leaders recognize contributions that individuals make. In every winning team, the members need to share in the rewards of their efforts, so leaders celebrate accomplishments. They make people feel like heroes.” One could argue that, for creative professionals, Kouzes and Posner should change “Encourage the Heart” to “Feed the Ego.” Creative directors can sometimes humbly brag that they don’t have egos even as their name is on the company’s masthead. However, we all know that’s not really true. I mean, don’t we all want to, as The Leadership Challenge states, “feel like heroes?” So, how do you feed the ego without creating an eating disorder? To put it a different way, creative leadership is about rewarding talent without it going to their heads. I believe there is something very specific that designers, writers, architects, photographers, videographers, actors, models and other creative talent all want more than anything else. It’s more important than praise, respect, money, credit or even celebrations. We want to experience our work. If you want to kill the beating heart of a writer, just deny them the opportunity to experience their work on set. Graphic designers love to be there when something they created rolls off the presses. We all crave experiences. There is nothing I love more than sitting down in a brand experience our team has created to just watch people interacting with what we’ve created. However, experiences also keep us grounded. First, experiences constantly remind both creative directors and their teams that they are not alone. It truly does take a guild of talented individuals to create an experience. You can’t be on a video set without recognizing how many people are involved in making the experience happen. You can’t walk through a construction site and not grasp the talent of the carpenters and craftsmen. If creative leaders encourage their people to experience their work, they will feel a sense of accomplishment while also recognizing all the individual contributions involved. Second, and this may be more important to keeping us grounded, experiencing our work also helps to remind us how far we still have to go. The best analogy is to an actor who both loves the experience of being in movies but hates seeing themselves on screen. This is how the actor Jessie Eisenberg put it: “We had to go to a public screening of The Social Network at Lincoln Center, and I hated it. I mean, I know it’s a good movie because people say it, but I can’t look at my face.” Creative directors need to constantly encourage people to experience their work because while it will make them “feel like heroes,” it will also remind them that they are human. In creative leadership, the experience can be both rewarding and discouraging at the same time.
When I originally wrote this for a post on LinkedIn back in November 2015, I didn’t set out to change “The Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership” from The Leadership Challenge. In fact, the next time someone asks me what a creative director actually does, I might hand them a copy of Kouzes and Posner book. However, like any good creative director, I might grab my red Sharpie and make just a few copy edits:
Modeling the Idea
Inspire the Vision
Ignore the Process
Recruit Talent to Act
Yep, that’s what creative directors do. And this is what creative leadership is all about.
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