To ask what the future is of creative business leadership opens up a dynamic range of questions examining both the term itself and the shifting context in which it’s used. This June, Salon Kreativ hosted an informal panel discussion, in partnership with the Berlin School of Creative Leadership, to do just that.
The evening was presented by the school’s Faculty Director, Professor David Slocum. Joining the debate were Marie Reig Florensa (Human Factor Catalyst), Leonard Sommer (Chief Creative Officer of SOMMER+SOMMER and Co-Founder of XQ Digital), and Marília Lobo (Head of Strategy & Learning Innovation at the Berlin School). If the world in which we do business is changing dramatically, then any philosophy that seeks to inject creativity into the process of leading this change must be agile and ever-changing too. By that nature, it’s almost undefinable. So, how do three practicing creative business leaders envision the future of this evolving leadership approach? Jump into our discussion and find out why the answer will never be a simple one.
Not by accident, Creative Business Leadership teaches us to sense and analyze the complexity of commonly-used terms and assumptions. Its name already presents us with a number of loaded terms that need to be unpacked in order to get a true sense of its origins, depth, and potential possibilities. We must be open to recognizing the multiple dimensions of creativity and leadership, how they can be deployed in a business context, and seeing the potential to transform not only individuals and organizations, but whole areas of industries and society.
What Defines Creative Business Leadership?
Complex and evolving by nature, it’s ironic to presume that there would ever be a single or simple answer to this question. On top of this, Creative Business Leadership assumes that every leader is different, bringing his or her own perspective, experiences, and skills to the table. So it’s only fitting, between our three panelists, to expect to hear three quite differing perspectives on its meaning.
For Marília Lobo, the pivotal point of Creative Business Leadership lies in the relationships between the self and other persons, particularly during the process of debriefing a project or event. “As creative minds, we have the tendency to focus on the brief and forgetting, as leaders, the value of debriefing as a tool to enable learning – to reflect on how you solved a problem and how you related with others in that specific moment before jumping into the next one. For me, this is central to Creative Business Leadership; how you intentionally focus energy, time, and attention to the relationship with others, and to making sure your values and company’s values are aligned.”
Reflecting on his own evolving definition of leadership, Leonard Sommer speaks of his early leadership days in the ‘90s, having just finished his studies in Communication Design and opening a start-up with his brother Gordon Sommer. “After 18 months, we had 50 staff members, and we didn't have the chance to learn how to manage that. Our leadership style was just joy; passion. How would you practice that with almost no experience?” Over the years, particularly through practicing delegation, he has learned the value of being less “protective” and of releasing the responsibility over creative ideas. “I learned that it's easier to empower people so that they can create their own ideas.” This mind-set, viewing the role of leader as one who fosters an environment of creative thinking, is one characteristic that sets Creative Business Leadership apart from other formal leadership philosophies.
“It’s about questioning. Why do we do the things that we do?” Marie Reig picks up on the need to acknowledge the sometimes chaotic, human aspects of decision-making and behavior and to integrate them in a way that is led by value.
The Sum of its Parts
If “questioning” is a core practice within Creative Business Leadership, then we must challenge ourselves as leaders to break down its key concepts. “As if creativity and leadership as words and ideas are not complicated enough, we wanted to raise three or four others,” Professor David Slocum adds before challenging our panelists to comment on the role of complexity, diversity, learning, and community. “In different ways, these are each crucial to the way that Creative Business Leadership should be approached if it is going to be successful. They are also examples of what Marvin Minsky from the MIT Media Lab calls ‘suitcase words’ – terms that are used too easily without much explanation. For their real meaning to be understood they need to be unpacked like suitcases.”
To Leonard Sommer, evaluating complexity comes down to recognizing the main stages of making creative concepts a reality; “First, you need to define the main stages of your innovative or creative process; the pathway of your idea. Then, to recognize what kind of processes you need to follow and skillsets are needed. And finally we ask, what is the technology needed to create it? Because without that, you can't create anything.”
Professor Slocum introduces this topic aptly. “If differences are at the heart of creativity, diversity is at the heart of creative business leadership.”
“As a leader, you need to maximize diversity of skills and experiences,” Leonard Sommer explains, describing these diverse, and even conflicting experiences as resources that leaders are responsible for finding and utilizing.
Marie Reig is quick to point out the responsibilities that comes with this. “Diversity is a beautiful term, but it comes with many different layers – roles, egos, skillsets – that need to be balanced.” In her experience, we can learn a lot from exercising equilibrium as leaders and learn to see our own situations reflected back in different “mirrors.”
Marília Lobo describes diversity as a lens that opens your eyes to see perspectives and problems that would have been invisible or easy to ignore. “Because if you don't see the problem, there is no problem.” On practicing diversity, she also describes the need to treat it as a muscle that needs to be strengthened. “It’s easy, in the hiring process, for example, to go back to the same people, time and time again.”
“Leading is not the final destination,” says Maria Reig, “but an ongoing process of learning.”
This humble process of learning and unlearning is one which Leonard Sommer cites in his own manifesto: Seeking for excellence, you need to be open to feedback and criticism. Ask people to tell you what's the problem. “When I think of learning, I often think of my kids. They are in a situation where they are forced to learn in an uncreative way.” From this, we can only extract that if we expect others, especially adults, to learn fruitfully, then it is our responsibility as leaders to create an environment where learning is liberating, energizing, and, above all, encouraged.
At the Berlin School, community means creating a safe and immersive environment in which to learn, take risks, interact with others and experiment. If complexity, diversity and learning are the elements needed to drive Creative Business Leadership, you might say that ‘community’ is its living laboratory. “It’s the safe space,” claims Marília Lobo, “where we can practice these risks and practice unlearning in psychological safety.”
What is the Future of Creative Business Leadership?
Creative Business Leadership is more than the sum of its (moving) parts. Now that they have unpacked some of these parts, how do our three panelists envision a future, along with the evolving responsibilities of creative business leaders?
“The future is expansion,” says Marie Reig. “Nowadays, the boundaries between what is and what is not considered part of the ‘creative industries’ is melting; it's foggy.” This is one of the very reasons that we need creative business leaders; to catalyze this expansion and, to inject and mediate creativity into all businesses.
Looking to the future, we are reminded that leaders must practice humility and self-awareness. “I think it's important that we don’t romanticize Creative Business Leadership or creative leaders,” Marília Lobo asserts. “We are all human beings full of flaws, emotions, and frustrations, and it’s important to debate and not to romanticize by simply placing the tag ‘creative’ next to the word ‘leader’. The creative leader has to be a human being that practices self-awareness and understands how to relate to others – that doesn't behave like a superhero.”
As we continue to navigate the fourth industrial revolution, to Leonard Sommer, the future of Creative Business Leadership comes with a three-fold set of responsibilities marked by technology and automation. As technology continues to take the burden of many manual jobs, Sommer highlights our responsibility “to cultivate important traits of human nature” – traits such as creativity, empathy, imagination, and balance – and to create a working environment in which these forces work in tandem. In other words, a situation where creative productivity is enhanced and not stagnated by technology. His next observation is to keep an eye on mental health. “Statistics say that 50% of millennials in the UK claim to use their mobile device to complete work tasks at home.” He asserts that a creative leadership agenda should involve leading by example to encourage digital detox and to be aware of the mental health risks that can lead to burnout. Lastly, he highlights the need to foster an entrepreneurial spirit. “We need to encourage people in our organizations to break the rules, to ideate, and do different things. Empower your staff to really be an entrepreneur, or you have the risk that you might lose them at the next stage.”
Evolving Definitions and Lofty Goals
Absorbing the insights of our panelists, it’s tempting to want to formulize Creative Business Leadership into a single approach or school of thought. Instead, we are challenged to think about the future of Creative Business Leadership rather as a mind-set and a way of seeing and acting in the world. “What does that mean?”, David Slocum poses to the room. “It means, as we've heard again and again, that there needs to be a constant adjustment.” In search of a neatly packaged solution to the future of Creative Business Leadership it’s also tempting, in the present day, to look to Silicon Valley; at Google or SoundCloud. David Slocum prefers to look at these successes as a start-point. “We must be very skeptical about that response, in terms of its relevance to our own challenges.”
Providing some closing thoughts to the discussion, he adds, “Listening to my colleagues tonight, part of what I believe is that with sufficient awareness and with a mindfulness of so many different possibilities and dimensions of creativity and leadership around us today, we cannot just react to, but act proactively in solving business problems and in successfully transforming our societies. Those are lofty goals.”