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Why Creativity Is the Most Important Leadership Quality

Two years ago, IBM’s 2010 Global CEO Study, which surveyed more than 1,500 chief executive officers from 60 countries and 33 industries worldwide, concluded that creativity is now the most important leadership quality for success in business, outweighing competencies such as integrity and global thinking. The CEOs told IBM that today’s business environment is volatile, uncertain and increasingly complex. Because of this, the ability to create something that’s both novel and appropriate is top of mind.

“Given the pace of change, organizations rise and fall faster than ever before; witness Blockbuster, Nokia and Motorola,” said Gerard J. Puccio, department chairman and professor at the International Center for Studies in Creativity at Buffalo State College and co-author of The Innovative Team: Unleashing Creative Potential for Breakthrough Results. “So how does an organization survive in such tumultuous times? The same way humans have survived throughout history.”

Puccio suggests organizations use collective imagination to develop solutions to the evolving challenges posed by the environment, because imaginative responses are much more likely to sustain innovation. Without creative thinking, organizations miss out on breakthrough ideas that can become innovations.

“But in order for creativity to become a global leadership competence, individuals in leadership positions must first recognize the fact that creativity and creative problem solving are 21st century leadership skills,” he said.

But according to survey results released earlier this month by AMA Enterprise and the Institute for Corporate Productivity, creativity is one of the hardest leadership competencies to master

“Leaders today are overwhelmed with too little time and too much to accomplish in any given day,” said Sandi Edwards, senior vice president at AMA Enterprise. “There is little to no time allotted for real thinking, brainstorming or experimentation without judgment. With so much pressure to produce quick results in the current economic environment, it may seem like a luxury to walk away from the mountain of tasks to be accomplished.”

According to Edwards, chief learning officers who are transparent, authentic and compassionate help employees accept the need for change and motivate them to experiment with new ways to achieve their goals. She said in times of change, especially radical change, leaders cannot over-communicate. They need to ensure everyone understands both the rationale for change and the new expectations for the business.

“Exceptional leaders can demystify the business challenges and clarify the inevitable ambiguity associated with innovation and change, thus enabling the employees to move forward with as little anxiety and fear as possible as they transform the business together,” Edwards said.

According to Chris Grivas, principal of Chris Grivas Consulting and co-author of The Innovative Team, the best way learning leaders can teach creativity is to model it.

“The keys to making change stick are knowledge and consistency — having a strong understanding of the creative process, tools and techniques to facilitate progress within that process, and using the process whenever solving a problem,” Grivas said.

Grivas and Puccio believe there are four creative thinking preference types — clarifiers, ideators, developers and implementers. Each way of thinking is fundamental to the creative process; organizations need all four to generate breakthroughs, but their research and applied work has highlighted the fact that people will vary in regard to how comfortable they are thinking and behaving as each type.

Grivas and Puccio believe that like evolution, creativity can happen by chance, but also like evolution, creativity can be deliberately guided. Just as scientists selectively develop particular genetic lines of animals and plants, leaders are able to take control of their own creativity and deliberately bring about breakthrough outcomes and products when they understand the universal creative process.

“Having a common language enables team members to short-circuit emerging conflicts while keeping the team on track by deliberately following the creative process,” Grivas said. “Trained leaders who are consistent in the application of creative process and creative tools will make all the difference in building a strong creative competence throughout the organization.”

Graffiti artist and motivational speaker Erik Wahl believes developing this toolkit is essential to disruptive thinking. He said as the landscape for business continues to change, leaders need a steady stream of disruptive strategies and unexpected solutions to stay ahead of the game — solutions that revive stagnant markets or completely reinvent the competitive dynamics of an industry.

“If we do not employ creativity as a core cultural imperative in business, we will be stuck in yesterday’s success and actively resist change,” he said. “The most efficient framework for chief learning offers to promote innovation is to create a culture that rewards creative thinking. Build a professional platform that engages and ignites new ideas. Let go of old perceptions of how social networking works for our kids and create the framework that channels success strategies throughout your learning organization in a viral, fun and strategic way.”

Ladan Nikravan is an associate editor of Chief Learning Officer magazine. She can be reached at lnikravan@CLOmedia.com.